How Manchester United made Cristiano Ronaldo

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

He arrived as a raw, exciting boy but left as a formidable player and man who is breaking records at Real. Ian Herbert speaks to those who witnessed the winger's rapid development at Old Trafford

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'."

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and Clara have their first real heart to heart since he regenerated in 'Deep Breath'
TV
Arts and Entertainment
James Hewitt has firmly denied being Harry’s father
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Oliver
filmTV chef Jamie Oliver turned down role in The Hobbit
News
The official police photograph of Dustin Diamond taken after he was arrested in Wisconsin
peopleDownfall of the TV star charged with bar stabbing
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Sport
Ashley Barnes of Burnley scores their second goal
footballMan City vs Burnley match report
News
news
News
Sir James Dyson: 'Students must be inspired to take up the challenge of engineering'
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Man of action: Christian Bale stars in Exodus: Gods and Kings
film
Life and Style
Apple showed no sign of losing its talent for product launches with the new, slightly larger iPhone 6 making headlines
techSecurity breaches and overhyped start-ups dominated a year in which very little changed (save the size of your phone)
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Bleacher Report

Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Day In a Page

A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

Who remembers that this week we enter the 150th anniversary year of the end of the American Civil War, asks Robert Fisk
Homeless Veterans appeal: Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served

Homeless Veterans appeal

Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served
Downfall of Dustin 'Screech' Diamond, the 'Saved By The Bell' star charged with bar stabbing

Scarred by the bell

The downfall of the TV star charged with bar stabbing
Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

Security breaches and overhyped start-ups dominated a year in which very little changed (save the size of your phone)
Cuba's golf revolution: But will the revolutionary nation take 'bourgeois' game to its heart?

Will revolutionary Cuba take 'bourgeois' golf to its heart?

Fidel Castro ridiculed the game – but now investment in leisure resort projects is welcome
The Locked Room Mysteries: As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor Otto Penzler explains the rules of engagement

The Locked Room Mysteries

As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor explains the rules of engagement
Amy Adams on playing painter Margaret Keane in Tim Burton's Big Eyes

How I made myself Keane

Amy Adams hadn’t wanted to take the role of artist Margaret Keane, because she’d had enough of playing victims. But then she had a daughter, and saw the painter in a new light
Ed Richards: Parting view of Ofcom chief. . . we hate jokes on the disabled

Parting view of Ofcom chief... we hate jokes on the disabled

Bad language once got TV viewers irate, inciting calls to broadcasting switchboards. But now there is a worse offender, says retiring head of the media watchdog, Ed Richards
A look back at fashion in 2014: Wear in review

Wear in review

A look back at fashion in 2014
Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015. Might just one of them happen?

Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015

Might just one of them happen?
War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

The West needs more than a White Knight

Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

The stories that defined 2014

From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?