So overwhelming was the drama of Wayne Rooney’s omission from the Manchester United side to face Real Madrid on 5 March that the really significant piece of pre-match choreography went almost entirely undetected.
The names of the Madrid XI were read out second by stadium announcer Alan Keegan that night – an unprecedented act on a place where they wring every piece of theatre out of United – and of their number it was Cristiano Ronaldo, “the magnificent No 7” as Keegan described him, who was named last of all.
This was all the design of Sir Alex Ferguson, whose instructions on how Ronaldo’s return were to be handled were spelled out in the days leading up to the Champions League knock-out tie. The only uncertainty is what Ferguson was playing at. Trying to unsettle his one-time prodigy with the big introduction, perhaps? That worked fairly well as a strategy given the job Rafael da Silva did marking him. Or trying to remind him how it would be if he ever came home to Manchester?
No one is making confident predictions that the 28-year-old will be returning to the stadium he last left as a United player in May 2009, when with the Premier League title retained he drove his soft-top Bentley into the early evening sunshine.
“I’ll believe it when I see it,” says one source, citing the numerous obstacles. But the fact that United are harbouring any hope indicates the scale of their ambition in a summer when an investment of perhaps £80m would carry the signal that the Glazers are driving on under a brilliant new manager, rather than the coach who came cheapest.
It isn’t the kind of luxury afforded to the former chief executive David Gill. “The economics of the madhouse” is how he described the £80m sale of Ronaldo to the Bernabeu in 2009 – a deal in which United demanded and got the money in one lump sum. It is also actually unclear how much Moyes, very much his own man, would welcome such a player being bestowed upon him. But it is hard to avoid the sense that a new era at Old Trafford will be accompanied by a very substantial signature purchase this summer.
Cesc Fabregas could also be that man. He is the type of player whom United need more than Ronaldo. The Premier League champions would be ruled by their heads, more than their hearts, in settling upon him. For a club with £80m to spend, Gareth Bale ought to be that man, though the mechanics of doing business with Tottenham chairman Daniel Levy is a major impediment to that notion. United know that Levy’s determination to drive a deal into the last days of a transfer window, to exact the last modicum of financial advantage, could leave them pursuing Bale all summer, only to be left with a day or two to seek an alternative if such a deal falls down.
In the background there is also the task of ensuring that Wayne Rooney stays. If words could be taken at face value in football then we could say with confidence that the relationship between Rooney and David Moyes is restored, though no one really knows how the phone call the striker put in to the then-Everton manager a few years ago, apologising for libelling him in his autobiography, really played out.
The reasons why Rooney should stay are so overwhelmingly strong that they hardly seem to require rehearsing. By staying at Old Trafford he can become an all-time legend and the club’s top goalscorer. He is currently only 52 behind Sir Bobby Charlton. Going elsewhere may be more lucrative for him and will certainly be so for his representatives but he is unlikely to establish the same status in another place. There is not an abundance of senior players left with whom Rooney gets on to make the arguments to stay. Ryan Giggs is more likely to influence him than Rio Ferdinand. But they have a significant job to do.
United will also do what United do, looking after their own, as they try to persuade supporters that Rooney’s desire to leave was perhaps not as pronounced as Sir Alex Ferguson suggested last month.
Ronaldo would be quite a reason to stay, though. When you listen to his former United team-mates talk about how desperate he was to leave behind the Manchester rain in 2009 it is hard to countenance the idea he would want to go back. But a United optimist would say Ronaldo might have discovered the Iberian grass wasn’t greener. “It was like Robin van Persie saying how that little boy within was screaming at him,” Gary Neville said in March. “Madrid was something he had to fulfil.”
Asked last December whether the player might return, Ferguson said: “I don’t see that. It’s fanciful thinking really.” Three months later, when Ronaldo actually arrived at Old Trafford to play, Ferguson knew that his own tenure was over. It was time to create a homecoming fit for a legend and hope, in the face of insuperable odds, that might persuade him that Old Trafford would always be his home.