On the 6th August 2003, Cristiano Ronaldo defeated Manchester United with Sporting Lisbon in a pre-season friendly. The match was a 3-1 victory for Sporting, which saw Ronaldo score a goal and comprehensively tear Gary Neville apart. Sensing this was a player not to miss out on, Sir Alex Ferguson moved quickly to sign him for United’s upcoming campaign, and two days later, on the 8th of August, Ronaldo was officially a United player. A further eight days passed, and on the opening day of the 12th Premier League season, an 18-year-old Ronaldo made his debut. Evidently, even early in his career, Ronaldo's world moved very quickly.
Coming on as a 61st minute substitute for Nicky Butt, Ronaldo's debut came in front of a packed Old Trafford, against Sam Allardyce’s typically robust Bolton Wanderers. Up to that point, the match had been a bland affair, with only a single Ryan Giggs goal separating the sides. Noting the lack of pace and penetration, Ferguson turned to his new winger for inspiration. United scored three more goals in the short time after Ronaldo’s introduction, and could have had more had Ruud Van Nistelrooy converted a penalty won by the precocious Portuguese.
Acting as the catalyst for what would end a comfortable 4-0 victory, Ronaldo’s debut was a goal short of perfect. Direct dribbling, signature step-overs, Cruyff turns and heat-seeking crosses were all executed with a coltish style that was typical of his early career. Indeed, so immediate was Ronaldo’s impact at United that any trepidation felt amongst fans regarding their club’s future, following the sale of homegrown hero David Beckham, soon evaporated in the heat of their new number 7’s lightening wing-play. There was life after Beckham at United, and it came in the form of Cristiano Ronaldo.
However, the boy from Madeira was still raw and the 18-years-old’s decision-making could be poor at times. His panache for superfluous step-overs would often draw ire from club captain, Roy Keane, but the promise he showed was never in question. As each seasons passed, Ronaldo went from strength to strength, dropping bad habits, such as indecisiveness and play-acting, while refining his strengths for dribbling and shooting. From a fan’s perspective, the visible progression in Ronaldo’s game was tantalising, and after his first three seasons, Ronaldo began to look something like the ruthlessly efficient goal machine we know today.
At this point, the Manchester United chapter of the Cristiano Ronaldo story could easily have ended. Having been involved in the sending off of club teammate, Wayne Rooney, during England’s defeat to Portugal at the 2006 FIFA World Cup, Ronaldo began positioning himself towards a move to La Liga. Claiming he had lacked support from the club hierarchy when subjected to a summer of intense media scrutiny, Ronaldo saw his position at the club untenable. Thankfully for United’s supporters, Sir Alex Ferguson never entertained the idea of Ronaldo departing and, much like Beckham after France ’98, the following season in Manchester would be the making of him. Ronaldo, then 21-years-old, ended the 2006-2007 season with his first Premier League winners medal, and as the club’s joint top scorer, alongside Wayne Rooney, with 28 goals in all competitions.
His two subsequent seasons at United would see Ronaldo capture two more Premier League titles, the UEFA Champions League and the FIFA Club World, while officially being recognised as the world’s best player, after receiving the 2008 Ballon d’Or. Over his six-year stay in Manchester, Ronaldo propelled United back to the top of domestic and European football, while transforming himself from a skinny, slightly goofy looking boy, into football’s undisputed leading man. He had amassed a haul of silverware that most footballers never achieve, let alone before their 25th birthday. But, for all his glittering success during his time at Old Trafford, there were persistent suggestions that Ronaldo was ultimately bound for the Santiago Bernabéu.
And so, on 11th June 2009, it came to pass, as Manchester United accepted a record-breaking £80million bid from Real Madrid for Cristiano Ronaldo, mirroring the events of the 2003 summer transfer window, when Real Madrid first took another of United’s carefully nurtured number 7s. But while Beckham arguably failed to live up to expectations in Spain, Ronaldo miraculously surpassed all that were laid upon him.
Scoring on his La Liga debut after just 35 minutes, Cristiano Ronaldo had hit the ground sprinting. That 3-2 victory over Deportivo La Coruna set the tone for his subsequent Real Madrid career, as he went on to systematically obliterate almost every goal scoring record in sight. So far, from 2009 to 2014 Ronaldo has scored 257 goals in 252 club appearances, winning 4 domestic Spanish titles, while being an indispensible member of the team that, after a 12 year wait, finally delivered the elusive La Decima to the long waiting Madridistas. The start of 2014 saw Ronaldo, at 29-years-old, once again crowned the world’s best player, as he collected his second Ballon d’Or. The exponential rise of Ronaldo’s career continued, having now firmly cemented his place in the history of arguably the most prestigious football club in the world.
Everything about Ronaldo’s career thus far has been characterised by an insatiable appetite to continually reach the next plateau. On the pitch, his voracious ambition manifests itself through faster sprinting, higher jumping, greater physicality, deadlier attacking, more goals and more medals. It’s as though Ronaldo lives at terminal velocity, perpetually forging ahead as fast as humanly possible towards his next target. Indeed, his innovative approach towards what it takes to become the very best has undoubtedly been an influence on the latest generation of footballers, arguably none more so than current teammate, Gareth Bale. It's fair to say there is no one in 21st century football who optimisms a relentless strive to improve quite like Cristiano Ronaldo.
But, 5 years on from his departure from Manchester United, it seems that Ronaldo, he so synonymous with progress, is showing the first genuine sign of regression. With rumor’s that Ronaldo has become disenchanted with life in Madrid, reports suggest he is seriously considering a return to Manchester. Superficially, this development in Ronaldo’s career would seem a great boon for those at Old Trafford; however, Manchester United fans would be wise to exercise wariness at such rumours.
Given the propensity for footballers to gain leverage over their existing employers by any means necessary, such speculation could be an artificial construction; an attempt to consolidate Ronaldo’s power in the wake of La Decima. Indeed, it could be argued Ronaldo’s past ambition to originally leave Old Trafford after the 2006 FIFA World Cup, was merely a ploy to engineer an improved contract, something that eventually came in 2007. Furthermore, this is not the first time Ronaldo has been linked with a sensational return to Manchester either. Just last season, there was talk of Ronaldo being sad in Madrid, with a return to Old Trafford being his wish. No move materialised, and Ronaldo stayed at the Bernabéu, signing an improved contract in the process, which made him the world’s best paid footballer.
That said, Ronaldo’s current desire may well be genuine, and this could be the natural trajectory of his career. Having now won everything in Spain, and with the Italian, German and French leagues providing little allure in terms of their competitiveness, perhaps it’s only logical that Ronaldo return to the club at which he first made his name, and where he is still adored.
So, if the rumours are true, then the question must be raised: should Manchester United resign him?
Taking into account everything that Ronaldo has achieved, the obvious answer is yes. How could any team turn down a player who has consistently proven his ability at the highest level of the sport, especially when they are the club he wants to join? When you consider how he has somehow managed to improve his game with each passing season, the outcome of any debate must surely be a forgone conclusion. However, the reality is that football is not as simple as transposing the world’s best players into your lineup and watching the goals fly in; just ask Real Madrid.
The dynamics of football are in constant flux. Manchester United is not the same club that Cristiano Ronaldo left in 2009; much like how that club wasn’t the same one he had joined in 2003. When Ronaldo first came to United, they were at the start of a major transition. Long established pillars of the first team all left around the time he came on the scene, with Phil Neville, Nicky Butt, David Beckham and Roy Keane all moving on. Sir Alex Ferguson wasn’t having much luck with his new recruits either, as those charged with bearing the burden carried by the departing old guard, proved unfit for purpose. Juan Sebastian Veron, Klederson, Eric Djemba-Djemba, Fabien Barthez, Tim Howard and Diego Forlan were but a few that came and went, without leaving much of a mark in Manchester.
During a spell from the 2001-2002 season to the 2005-2006 season, Manchester United won one Premier League title, having succeeded power to Arsenal and Chelsea. It was in this era of United’s history that Cristiano Ronaldo provided the answers to the difficult questions being asked at Old Trafford. Obviously, the contributions of Wayne Rooney, Rio Ferdinand, Nemanja Vidic and Edwin Van Der Sar should not be understated, but it was always Ronaldo who was the decisive factor in Manchester United’s mid-millennium renaissance; a period of success that culminated in three consecutive Premier League titles between 2007 and 2009, and three UEFA Champions League final appearances between 2008 and 2011.
Now, in 2014, Manchester United are again in transition, but this time the shift in tectonic plates is on a scale unseen before at Old Trafford. Sir Alex Ferguson, the father of modern United, has retired, and bedrock players that helped bring success to United over the last decade, such as Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes, Rio Ferdinand, Nemanja Vidic and Patrice Evra are no longer on the pitch. Furthermore, under the disastrous stewardship of David Moyes, last season saw the team finished in their lowest ever position during the Premier League era and outside Champions League qualification. It would therefore seem the stage is perfectly set for Cristiano Ronaldo, in typical superhero style, to once again swoop in to Manchester and deliver United to the halcyon days of his first stint at the club.
The romantic appeal of such a scenario is the stuff of fiction given how ostensibly perfect everything sounds. Like the vaunted Class of ’92, Cristiano Ronaldo came to Manchester United as a boy, where he mature into one of the world’s best. For a Manchester United fan, watching Ronaldo’s career blossom at Old Trafford would have been a joy to behold. He is one of them, they made him and, like a son, they will always love him. The man, that seemingly wants to return, is now a football god, the answer to a good deal of fan’s prayers, and the key to salvation for many of the Old Trafford flock. Truthfully however, there is just as much chance, if not more, that such an idyllic reunion will fall flat.
The new environment at Manchester United is one that calls for inventiveness. Invention is born from necessity, and the return of Ronaldo must be cast as unnecessary. Firstly, United are a team already top heavy in attack, so accommodating their former hero will be hard. Previously, Ronaldo’s presence in United’s team often meant sacrificing the talents of Wayne Rooney, given their formation was invariably geared towards maximising the Portuguese’s performance. Today, with the likes of Rooney, Robin Van Persie and Radamel Falcao all vying for the forward positions, the addition of Ronaldo seems needlessly ostentatious and potentially disruptive. Secondly, his return will complicate the first team progression of many of the younger players. In this respect, one should remember the impact that Paul Schole’s decision to come out of retirement had on Paul Pogba's choice to leave United for Juventus, with that particular case now going down as a hugely embarrassing episode of Sir Alex Ferguson’s latter days as manager.
It's also important to note that, as an investment, Ronaldo is not an enticing prospect for United a second time around. Having originally been purchased for £12.25million, and then sold for £80million, the figures that will be required to resign him, in terms of fees and wages, will be significantly higher than those of his previous deals. What’s more, at almost 30-years-old, it is certain that Ronaldo’s on field ability will begin to diminish, and, as a consequence, so will his market value. Fans would argue that assertions of deteriorating ability are facetious, given how incredibly gifted a player Ronaldo is, but the point still stands, especially in light of the chronic knee injury he’s develop since last season.
Today, in relatively unknown territory, Manchester United must look for pragmatic solutions to their current conundrum, having once already tried to reuse old formulas, with last season's the calamitous appointment of David Moyes. In that instance, United looked to someone who embodied a methodology akin to that which served the club so well under Sir Alex Ferguson. Alas, 1986, the year of Sir Alex's appointment as manager, and 2013 offered incomparable footballing landscapes, and Moyes' methods proved utterly antiquated in maintaining United’s modern success.
In a post-match interview given by Ferguson, following Ronaldo’s United debut, the then manager stated United “must never stand still,” in reference to the sales of Beckham and Veron, and acquisition of Ronaldo. Indeed, standing still and looking to the past proved catastrophic for Manchester United last season, and soon enough, the financial necessity of maintaining the club’s success led to the sacking of Moyes, a breaking of tradition, and the hiring of the club’s first foreign manager; the cosmopolitan Dutchman, Louis Van Gaal.
It is now Radamel Falcao, Ángel Di María, Adnan Januzaj, Ander Herrera, Daley Blind and Luke Shaw who must offer new solutions to the new problems faced at Old Trafford, à la Ronaldo circa 2003. In the past, Ronaldo’s unique talent was United's future, but now, when they and the balance of powers are again in transition, it would be unwise to use yesterday's answer for today's question. At the beginning of the 2014-2015 Premier League season, Louie Van Gaal and his new team must show the courage required to make a success of Manchester United’s uncertain future. Because for all the trouble that standing still caused United last season, going back to Ronaldo, 21st century football’s great innovator, may be just as flawed.