'Better than Best' but memories fade

United fans had an uneasy love affair with Ronaldo so they trust Ferguson to unearth another gem
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In May 2007, Manchester United were embarrassed by a Milan side who went on to beat Liverpool and win a seventh European Cup. The following day, one theme ran through the extensive Italian media coverage: "Why is there such hype about Cristiano Ronaldo?"

"We knew he was style over substance, but there wasn't even any style," declared one sports paper, reflecting on how the Portuguese winger had been put in his place by a snarling Gennaro Gattuso, outshone by Kaka and marooned by a game plan that saw United outclassed.

"I expected more from my team," said a chastened Sir Alex Ferguson after the game. Certainly everyone had expected more from Ronaldo.

Twelve months later, United returned to Italy for another key Champions' League tie against Roma. This time Ronaldo was man of the match in a resounding 2-0 victory. Even the sceptical Italian media were won over, acknowledging how he had dominated proceedings. Behind one goal of Rome's Olympic Stadium, the 2,800 travelling United fans, many of whom had previously avoided making too strong an emotional attachment to Ronaldo, began to sing. Many of them had long judged Ronaldo's self-confidence arrogant, his posturing pretentious. And there was the greater fear that he would turn his back on Manchester for Madrid.

That night in Rome their admiration shifted towards love. Ronaldo had been at the club almost five years since signing from Sporting Lisbon for £12.25 million as an 18-year-old, yet only now were the hardcore giving him their blessing as they bellowed: "Viva Ronaldo! Running down the wing, hear United sing, Viva Ronaldo," into the warm spring night.

United fans have idolised Bryan Robson, Roy Keane, David Beckham and Eric Cantona, but the wider footballing community always denied these United heroes the ultimate accolade. Ronaldo achieved that when he was voted European Player of the Year for 2008. The Madeiran thus achieved something that no United player had managed since George Best 40 years ago.

It helped that Lionel Messi and Kaka, his main challengers, were hampered by injury or playing for stumbling sides, but the margin of Ronaldo's victory – 80 per cent of the vote – left little doubt that this was immaterial to the final result.

Ferguson deserved much credit for Ronaldo's progress. Even the previously ignored Ruud van Nistelrooy, who will again become Ronaldo's team-mate, admitted last year: "Ronaldo's development has been the big change since I left Old Trafford. He stands out now. His improvement has been incredible. He came as a young lad and needed to mature. The manager gave him confidence by playing him all the time. By doing that he got the player he wanted.

"Ronaldo's now a great player. He makes the right decisions, taking the man on when he needs to and passing the ball when he needs to. He does everything – he takes free-kicks and corners. He leaves goal-kicks to [Edwin] van der Sar but I expect him to start taking them soon." Johan Cruyff went further: "Ronaldo is better than George Best and Denis Law."

There had been whispers that the chink in Ronaldo's armour was his failure to shine in big games. With United crowned English champions, Chelsea waited for an all-English Moscow final to show their worth. It finished 1-1 and although Ronaldo missed a penalty in the shoot-out, he had already scored a sumptuous first-half effort, his 42nd of the season.

As his peers held aloft the European Cup, Ronaldo was the master of all he surveyed in Russia. Then, to United fans' fury, barely an hour later, he hinted at the possibility of a summer move to Real Madrid, an act which had repercussions until the transfer window closed three months later.

To Ronaldo's frustration, he didn't join Madrid. Just as Ferguson was critical to Ronaldo's development, so the obdurate Glaswegian was the reason he didn't leave. Real Madrid were used to getting their own way. From Figo to Zidane, they forced reluctant sellers to give them the best players in the world, a pattern which Ferguson admirably halted but which is being repeated since Florentino Perez returned as Madrid's president.

Still only 24, Ronaldo enjoyed another good season in 2008-09, though his body language caused concern as he scarcely celebrated goals. The mood towards him changed among fans. Few doubted his immense talent, but when he won the Ballon D'Or, The United We Stand fanzine's cover read: "Deserved – Not Revered." The Red Issue fanzine went further, describing him as a "preening, perma-tanned, posturing, petulant prick".

Some United fans still sang his name at matches, but for such a gifted player any greater reverence was tempered by the knowledge that he would obviously rather be in Madrid. Though the rejection isn't easy, Ronaldo earned the right to the move and saw his wish granted. United will eventually pick up £80m, which fans will trust Ferguson to spend wisely by continuing to buy brilliant emerging talents, as memories of Ronaldo's largely glorious six-year spell at Old Trafford fade.