Gary Neville was at home, on the sofa, in the summer of 2003 when he witnessed it. He'd not travelled to Lisbon for the friendly between Manchester United and Sporting Lisbon which commemorated the inauguration of the Alvalade XXI Stadium, so for him it was his club's in-house TV station which provided the view of the run by the left-winger wearing the No 28 on his back. Within minutes of the game's conclusion, Neville was texting his brother Phil, in the sanctuary of the United dressing room, about Cristiano Ronaldo.
"It was in the first half when he made the run, inside John O'Shea," Neville recalls. "And I thought 'bloody hell'. When you're watching a player who you would usually play against, you look much more closely and it's very rare to see that level of movement and speed. Only a few people are capable of timing a run like that, inside the full-back and centre back – and the speed of it."
Of course, that game – with a jetlagged O'Shea part of a United team that had flown in on their way home from a pre-season tour in New York – now belongs to the fable of how Ronaldo came to belong to Manchester, the city which has made him the man who will step out at the Bernabeu tomorrow night. The legend even has it that Sir Alex Ferguson signed the boy because of his display in green and white hoops that night, which had Rio Ferdinand and Nicky Butt badgering him – "Are we going to get him or not?" as Ferdinand remembers it – in the dressing room afterwards.
Ferguson – being Ferguson – actually had Ronaldo sorted all along. "United would never have signed a player because of 90 minutes in a pre-season friendly. But they would probably have concluded it a bit quickly after that," says Neville, in Madrid to join Sky Sports for their live coverage of tomorrow's match. United actually hammered out the deal to buy him in a meeting up the coast at Cascais the night before the game and Ronaldo – who christened the match day as "M-Day" (for Manchester) in his mind – awoke on 6 August 2003 determined to show United what quality they had bought. There were no surprises when he, Ferguson and agent Jorge Mendes met briefly after the game, with Mendes doing the translating. But there were when the 18-year-old, £12.8m acquisition arrived in Manchester two days later, minus luggage or even spare clothes because he was convinced United would loan him back to Sporting for another year. "No problem," Ferguson said, after explaining that he wanted him in Manchester for the season. "Tomorrow you will train here and then you will go to Portugal to get your things." Eight days later he was playing against Bolton Wanderers in front of 67,000 fans at Old Trafford.
A quality like that transcends a player's little idiosyncrasies. Ryan Giggs remembers Ronaldo coming on for the last half-hour of the Bolton game "and dazzling a tired defence with a brilliant display of pace and skill". It was that, allied to the physique – "he looked more 28 than 18," Giggs recalls, "he was tall and strong and very impressive to look at" – which mattered, not that unmistakable show-pony quality which doesn't always fit in a place like Manchester.
Ronaldo agreed to the publication of a slightly bizarre ghostwritten book, Moments, when his United career had taken hold, the early pages of which are consumed by his "fondness for advertising", with stories of publicity shoots in Jakarta, Indonesia, and why he enjoyed his first modelling experience with Pepe Jeans "because I had to pose side by side with a professional model who was used to the cameras" at Berreiro, near Lisbon.
But he got away with all that because there was always a physical toughness to go with it. The striker James Scowcroft tells of how his Leicester City manager Micky Adams told him to try a "welcome to England" challenge on Ronaldo in that first season. "I did what he asked but he was 20 yards away before I'd finished the tackle," Scowcroft says.
There was also a work ethic. Quinton Fortune, the former United player, tells the story of how Ronaldo would finish training, strap on some ankle weights and go back on to the pitch to work on his step-overs. The players would laugh at him and he would laugh at himself.
The relationship with Ferguson was father and son, Neville says. "But he wasn't above being left out of the team. [Ferguson] encouraged him to show his ability and flair but didn't pick him every match." From the first year after his arrival, Ronaldo and Ferguson always had a bet going on his season's goals tally: first season it was 10 (Ronaldo lost), then 15 (Ronaldo lost). "On both occasions I tried to pay him. He refused to take a penny," Ronaldo reveals in Moments. In the 2006-07 season, Ronaldo raised the stakes to £400, had won the bet by February and refused to take the winnings.
For Ferguson the strategy had worked and run its course. He claimed in subsequent press conferences that they maintained the bet but the wager never ran again. "He taught me the basis of football," Ronaldo said of Ferguson, last week.
Neville jokes that he must have done 1,000 decoy runs over the years, drawing defenders away, and Ronaldo never passed it to him once. And no, there was not a great defensive output from the winger. But Neville wasn't complaining because of all that the player was delivering – especially so after the 2006 World Cup. To the outside world, that tournament is remembered for that Ronaldo wink after Wayne Rooney had been sent off but on the inside it was the tournament from which the then 21-year-old returned a player transformed again.
"I've still no idea how and why that was," Neville reflects. "Physically, he changed from a boy to a man. It was like he left as a featherweight and returned as a light heavyweight. That brought him a level of power he didn't have before. His power output increased through his body strength. And in the course of that summer his decision-making seemed to have improved as well. Before, he would cross or go one-on-one rather than pass."
Ronaldo says the media pressure at that 2006 World Cup matured him, including the furore over the wink. It was "not very pleasant", he has said. "But to tell the truth it did me some good. With this, I grew wiser and it ended up turning a problem into something that helped me mature. Whenever we get overconfident we stop listening to criticism about ourselves." Neville insists that the wink controversy was a media confection. "All's fair in love and war on the pitch," he insists. "You give out and you take. I went and swapped shirts with Ronaldo after that game."
That subsequent 2006-07 season was Ronaldo's most prolific. His headed goal, powered home at Rome's Stadio Olimpico en route to Champions League glory, epitomised that added power Neville speaks of. But even then there was the hankering to play in Madrid. "It was like Robin van Persie saying how that little boy within was screaming at him," Neville says. "Madrid was something he had to fulfil." Ronaldo first revealed this to a Spanish broadcaster at Carrington, on United's European Cup final media day. "The best we could do was keep him for 12 months," Neville says. Ferguson beat a path to the Algarve to persuade Ronaldo just that. "He would not consult or discuss that course of action with the players," Neville says of Ferguson. "We just waited to see how it would run."
And so, Ronaldo left, powering out of Old Trafford in his Bentley one last time after taking the rise out of the whole football media circus. A goalless draw against Arsenal in May 2009 had sealed the title when he was handed a microphone to do an interview with Anderson. "He says we didn't play very good today and now are focused on Barcelona," said Ronaldo, translating for Anderson and then telling him, with mock punditry: "You are a little bit disappointing because you come on and you touch the ball only one time today... OK, thank you very much. This is Sky Sports."
"I believe that his admiration for United is getting stronger," Neville reflects, "because of the stability and security he got, which doesn't seem a part of his relationship with Real, because of the rollercoaster nature of that club, with players and managers coming and going. The contrast means he is building up a true sense of United in his mind and must think 'that was an incredible place to play football'."
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