He simply destroyed us... and we kept begging Fergie to sign him up
There is a myth attached to Manchester United's signing of Cristiano Ronaldo that suggests Sir Alex Ferguson only became aware of the Portuguese 18-year-old's precocious talent on seeing him tear his defenders to shreds during a pre-season friendly in Lisbon in August 2003. The truth is Ferguson, along with Arsenal and Liverpool, had been trailing the unknown teenager for 12 months and already had a first-refusal arrangement in place with Sporting Lisbon. What that night in the Jose Alvalade stadium did do, however, was subject Ferguson to an almost unprecedented torrent of urging and insistence from his own players. Growth of a phenomenon: Eight-month-old Ronaldo at home in Madeira; and making his first communion aged 10 Former United midfielder Quinton Fortune said last night: 'We sat in the dressing room after the 3-1 defeat and we were just raving about him. Why wouldn't we? He was unbelievable. Most of us had never seen anyone with such a swagger.' On the flight home to Manchester that night, Ferguson had to listen to more of the same. 'They wouldn't shut up about it,' said Ferguson with a smile recently. 'They just kept telling me to sign him. In truth. I had realised that night that Ronaldo's secret was now out. We had to get it done.' United's subsequent outlay of £12million for the teenager seemed steep. But, almost six years on, the English champions are about to record a profit of £68m. That, in itself, says everything for the profound and unforgettable impact Ronaldo has had not only on United but on the Barclays Premier League and football across the world. It is unfortunate that Ronaldo is leaving behind such little goodwill, that his outstanding gifts as a footballer will - in the eyes of many - pale when they recall his posturing, penchant for diving and perceived arrogance. For he was, and indeed still is, one of the most spellbinding attacking players of the modern game. The great Johan Cruyff has gone on record to suggest Ronaldo's contribution at Old Trafford eclipsed that of Denis Law and George Best. The other member of United's 'Holy Trinity' of the Sixties, Sir Bobby Charlton, has also been lavish in his praise. 'It was paradise watching George play, just as it is now with Cristiano,' said Sir Bobby, after Ronaldo picked up the World Player of the Year award last season. 'The difference is that Ronaldo is stronger and faster. He is one of our club's greatest ever players, no doubt about that.' To understand fully Ronaldo's impact on United's return to the pinnacle of European football, it is necessary to look at where they were when he arrived. They had won the Premier League the previous season but, by Ferguson's own admission, had struggled to find the attacking verve that had swept them to Champions League glory in 1999. They had also just lost David Beckham to Real Madrid. With the arrival of Wayne Rooney still a year away, Ferguson and his team needed fresh impetus. United's marketing men also needed another superstar to help them shift shirts. As it transpired, Ronaldo was to give United the complete package. As marketable as Beckham? Not quite. As useful on the field? Definitely. English football watchers did not get to see Ronaldo in the flesh until his debut as a substitute in a 4-0 home win over Bolton that marked the start of the 2003-04 season. He played for 30 minutes and in many ways that cameo showcased the best and worst of what was to come. 'Some of the things he did on the ball were unbelievable that day,' said Ryan Giggs. 'He dazzled a tired defence with a brilliant display of pace and skill. He did tend to overdo the stepover a bit, though.' Also in evidence that day was the showboating that was to irritate and infuriate team-mates and manager through his six years at Old Trafford. He also spent a fair amount of his half-hour appearance on the ground. With Ronaldo, even as he grew older and wiser, it was always to be this way. It was hard to love him, even if you wanted to. Equally, it was just as hard to ignore him. His football grew steadily more effective and intelligent as he flourished under the guidance of Ferguson and his Portuguese assistant, Carlos Queiroz. There were moments of controversy as United's progress threatened to stall during their dismal 2005-06 campaign, Giggs epitomising the United dressing room's occasional frustration with their most precocious member by asking 'What about that lazy w****r?' when substituted during a European game. That year's World Cup also brought Ronaldo into further confrontation with players close to home as he was seen encouraging a referee to send off Rooney during a quarter-final meeting between England and Portugal in Gelsenkirchen. Already tired of English food, weather and drinking habits, the predictable backlash briefly caused him to consider a future away from Old Trafford. Ronaldo with the Golden Boot as Europe’s top scorer in October, and celebrating United’s Premier League title triumph with mum Dolores last month But Ferguson steered his protege back on course, and momentum built towards the staggering 2007-08 season in which Ronaldo scored 42 goals in propelling United towards a second successive league title and their first Champions League triumph for nine years. Some of his contributions that year will never be forgotten. A backheeled goal against Aston Villa stands out, as do a number of freekicks that eclipsed all but the best of the Beckham back catalogue. Buried beneath it all were Ronaldo's poor manners, a disregard for team ethics and an almost suffocating growth in his own self importance. I once saw him speak to a female club employee in front of journalists in a manner that would have brought Ferguson's blood to boiling point. It is also the case that Ferguson had increasingly to build his tactics around Ronaldo - as much as to accommodate his shortcomings when United did not have the ball as to maximise his effectiveness when they did. This was especially true in Europe. His legacy will, however, endure. I have never viewed Ronaldo as United's most important player. That distinction, in my view, belongs to Rooney. He was, however, part of something special at Old Trafford, a leading light in the club's third coming under Ferguson. United would not be where they are now without Cristiano Ronaldo. Love him or hate him, we will miss him now that he has gone.
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