It would have been most fitting for Cristiano Ronaldo to say farewell to Manchester United at the end of the 2007/08 season. Instead, the boy from Madeira waited another year before leaving, accompanied on his way to The Bernabeu by the bitter taste of defeat, after United were humbled in Rome by Barcelona.
Ronaldo scored 42 goals in all competitions during his penultimate season at Old Trafford, and the 2008 Champions League final in Moscow was the perfect microcosm of his time at Manchester United.
First came his goal. Wes Brown, who was outstanding at right-back that season, played a quick one-two with Scholes before whipping in a cross from the right. Ronaldo hung in the air, one of the many improvements he had made to his game at United, before powering a header past Petr Cech in the Chelsea goal. Brilliant. Ferguson’s attacking line-up, featuring Ronaldo, Rooney and Tevez was paying off.
Ronaldo had transformed throughout the course of the 2007/08 season from potential, to actual brilliance; an absolute goal-machine who could win games single handedly. Fitting then, that he should open the scoring in the Luzhniki Stadium.
After a tense ninety minutes, and an unbearable additional thirty, it all came down to penalties. Two each, Tevez and Carrick successful for United, before Ronaldo stepped up. From the moment Clive Bloody Tyldesley started bigging him up, it was only ever going to end one way for United’s player of the year. Still, the same can be said of John Terry, so it’s hard to have any complaints.
The penalty itself showed Ronaldo’s complete confidence in himself at such a crucial stage, while also displaying a hint of the showmanship which, at times throughout his career in Manchester, had United fans salivating.
Ok, so the execution was complete garbage, and if it wasn’t for Edwin Van Der Sar then United fans wouldn’t be able to look back so nostalgically, but that was Ronaldo. For every ridiculous pass that didn’t come off, there was a flick that did. That was part of the charm.
Then came the side of Ronaldo that most United fans didn’t want to see. As the rest of the squad ran triumphantly towards Van Der Sar, and Rooney demonstrated a turn of pace not seen since 2004, Ronaldo threw himself to the ground and sobbed, immediately taking the attention off his teammates.
There were other occasions; the diving, the walking off the pitch before Fergie could get a substitute ready, and the shirtless posturing after scoring United’s third past an already defeated Wigan in the 2006 Carling Cup final. You could see why other teams couldn’t stand him.
He was loved on the terraces of Old Trafford of course. Ronaldo was just eighteen when he signed, so it wasn’t too dissimilar from seeing a player successfully rise through the Manchester United youth system, before excelling for the first team.
When I stood on Market Street on 16th August 2003 waiting for the tram to Old Trafford, I was already looking forward to seeing how the new players performed, especially the one signed as a replacement for the departing David Beckham.
Before the explosion of social media, and the endless highlight reels on YouTube, you had to actually watch players before forming an opinion. There were rumours of course, as well as interviews with other squad members and manager press conferences to get tongues wagging about the £12.2 million ‘wonderkid’ that would soon be strutting his stuff in front of the Stretford End.
As I waited, I remember receiving updates on the Rugby World Cup, as England won against Australia. I think ‘Swing Low Sweet Chariot’ was even played prior to kick-off. Ironic really, as United fans would one day sing about how Ronaldo, while playing on the left and right, made England look, well, very poor indeed.
‘There’s only one Ronaldo’ was the best that the fans could come up with that day, still hurting from the more rotund version plundering three goals against United in the Champions League just a few months earlier.
When Ronaldo replaced Nicky Butt in the second half, United were struggling to get into their rhythm; a typical first day of the season performance. They were still one-nil up, thanks to a Ryan Giggs free-kick, but Bolton were hanging in.
A crackle of excitement reverberated around the stands when Ronaldo first picked the ball up. His spindly legs, along with his ghastly hair, flapped in the wind as he attempted step-over after step-over. I was also a little worried about his health, as he looked severely jaundiced. Still, he attacked the Bolton defence time after time, and United ended up winning four-nil.
The potential was there for all to see that day, but nobody could have predicted the stratospheric heights Ronaldo’s career reached after his debut, for United and Real Madrid.
I don’t believe that Ronaldo will ever return to United, nor do I believe that he should. He’s now thirty years old, and any transfer fee demanded by Real Madrid would be extortionate. I do believe however, that he should be consigned to history as one of Manchester United’s greats, certainly one of the best players in my lifetime.
Now, if United were to offer Paul Scholes £80 million to come out of retirement, that would be a different matter entirely.