James Lawton: Ronaldo must resist the lure of vanity to translate virtuosity into true greatness

Sometimes Oscar Wilde once observed, nature is in need of a bit of editing, and of course if anyone could say that with some personal authority it was the velvet-clad specialist in hurtling over the top. When asked to describe a Rocky Mountain sunset by the proud burghers of Denver, he muttered, "how gaudy". Wilde might have offered the same reservation about some aspects of Cristiano Ronaldo's luminous domination of the FA Cup final but, unlike Sven Goran Eriksson, he would surely not have mistaken the young Portuguese for anything but an utterly thrilling man of the match.

Sometimes Oscar Wilde once observed, nature is in need of a bit of editing, and of course if anyone could say that with some personal authority it was the velvet-clad specialist in hurtling over the top. When asked to describe a Rocky Mountain sunset by the proud burghers of Denver, he muttered, "how gaudy". Wilde might have offered the same reservation about some aspects of Cristiano Ronaldo's luminous domination of the FA Cup final but, unlike Sven Goran Eriksson, he would surely not have mistaken the young Portuguese for anything but an utterly thrilling man of the match.

However, and no doubt Sir Alex Ferguson is as aware of this as anybody, there are plainly aspects of Ronaldo in need of some judicious pruning. It should happen naturally enough as the 19-year-old is presented with challenges infinitely greater than the one so feebly produced by a Millwall team with neither the talent nor the nerve to do any more than attempt to escape a thrashing, a fate that ultimately could not be avoided and indeed might have been hastened if the referee, Jeff Winter, had reacted properly to some of the more brutish work of Dennis Wise.

Ronaldo's principal victim, Robbie Ryan, had the grace to admit that his tormentor was so elusive he took away the classic option of a good kicking. Paolo Maldini, even in his mid-thirties, might have found a few more profitable alternatives, but no doubt he, too, would have agreed with the view of such committed witnesses as Ferguson, Roy Keane and Ruud van Nistelrooy, who was unaccountably named top man by the performance adjudicator, Eriksson.

Ferguson said that when he looked across the whole reach of European football talent, he saw no one with more potential than his boy. Keane and Van Nistelrooy talked of a team-mate of brilliant precocity and hardening judgement. The kid had given them more than enough ammunition to fire off such views; he also gave a weight to United's post-game celebrations which otherwise, and especially in view of Keane's quite recent statement that in his opinion the FA Cup was nothing more than a "load of bollocks", would have seemed hollow indeed.

Ronaldo's performance - along with those of Darren Fletcher and the veteran Ryan Giggs particularly - had filled the Millennium Stadium with the sense of a team carrying something more than a thousand regrets. If Ronaldo was indeed the future, it was one which retained the power to make fantasy as well as hope.

But then gaudy he also was. One of his more elaborate step-overs came off beautifully - but it was necessary to remember it was performed against Millwall. Against Milan or Juventus it might well have led straight to the casualty ward. He still goes down too easily, though Ferguson was right to stress that at times criticism of this trait in his game has been grossly overstated... not least at Charlton, when Ronaldo was branded a diver after a game in which his marker, Radostin Kishishev might well have been sent off as early as the 10th minute. The tendency to fall down too easily will be removed, it is hoped, with some other excess baggage. Though Ronaldo is strong, beautifully skilled, there is still plainly a lot of vanity in his game.

In itself there is nothing wrong with a touch of self-regard. It was once said of Graeme Souness that had he been a chocolate bar he would have consumed himself in the time it took to rip off the wrappings, but never was a talent so hard and biting ever more consistently applied to the business of serious performance in the heart of the action. The danger for Ronaldo is that too much praise, too soon, might tilt the vital equilibrium of a player otherwise clearly equipped to seek out greatness. Believing in yourself is one vital thing. Believing in what other people say about you, sometimes a little excessively, is quite another. It is something, for example, which never ruffled the self-analysis of the greatest player of them all, Pele. The Brazilian, more than any other front-rank player, stripped himself of all vanity. He knew the difference between show and effect.

For, a fine example closer to his home and his time, Ronaldo need look no further than his team-mate Ryan Giggs, his nearest legitimate rival on Saturday for the man-of-the-match nomination. Ferguson brilliantly handled the emergence of Giggs into superstar status, and not least in the way he relentlessly scorned comparisons with George Best. Ferguson's best ally in this endeavour was the nature of Giggs. Fourteen years on, the Welshman continues to play with a wonderful appetite and lack of pretension, distinguishing himself on this occasion by making both Van Nistelrooy's goals, first by winning a penalty, then wrecking the entire Millwall cover system, such as it was, with an irresistible run. Giggs, fortunately for his own sense of progress in the game, was never lulled by the Best comparison.

There is, though, a significant difference between Giggs and Ronaldo. The latter has a wider talent, one much more susceptible to the lure of extravagance. He can go off both feet, and with wonderful balance, and his imagination sometimes flies to the stars - on some unfortunate occasions while his body hits the dirt. Football, and life, offers its brightest practitioners a natural learning process and given the pressure he has faced this season - not least in his £12m market valuation - only the most churlish critic would not recognise Ronaldo's progress thus far.

The warming fact is that on both the first and the last days of the season Ronaldo produced football of marvellous style and excitement. After his tour de force against Bolton Wanderers, when he came off the bench, on the opening day, there were soon enough inevitable claims that rival defenders had learned the tricks of the young pony, that Ronaldo was more cabaret than true calibre. He has outrun the criticism, and United's deeply disappointing season. He is a real and brilliant talent. Whether he gets to be a great player is dependent entirely on the priorities of his own nature. Now, gloriously, there is no doubt that he has the means.

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