Manchester United cannot be accused of underplaying Cristiano Ronaldo’s return to Old Trafford against Newcastle this weekend – a match that will be broadcast exclusively in the UK on BBC radio.
Ronaldo landing in the UK. Ronaldo turning up for training. Ronaldo talking to manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. United’s media channels have squeezed every drop of content from the build-up to his second debut.
The massive ‘Here We Belong’ poster on the front of the stadium has been changed to incorporate a prominent image of Ronaldo. The front cover of the programme for Saturday’s game is dedicated to the 36-year-old, including the words ‘Welcome Home Cristiano Ronaldo’.
“The only thing I can compare it to was when Eric Cantona came back from his ban,” says lifelong fan Andy Kilduff, co-founder of the Stretford End Flags group.
“We played Liverpool at home and there was all this ‘does he start, is he coming off the bench, he has not played for months’ – he almost came out of the tunnel completely on his own and Old Trafford erupted.
“How Ronaldo comes out of that tunnel against Newcastle will be pretty special. The love has always been there for him.
“When we played Real Madrid in 2013, even though he was wearing number seven and [stadium announcer] Alan Keegan was reading the teams out in number order, he left Ronaldo as the last player and said ‘welcome back to Old Trafford’. That shows how special he is.”
A ‘mind-boggling’ debut
Eighteen years ago, the backdrop was different for Ronaldo’s first Manchester United game.
The summer of 2003 had not been an easy one. David Beckham left for Real Madrid and a long-standing pursuit of Ronaldinho ended in failure as he joined Barcelona from Paris St-Germain.
Without the talented Brazilian, United’s recruitment consisted of David Bellion, Eric Djemba-Djemba, Tim Howard and Kleberson. Only goalkeeper Howard would have any meaningful impact.
Although the 18-year-old was recognised as having immense potential, most of the debate around the deal concentrated on the fee, which made Ronaldo the most expensive teenager in British football. He could have left Sporting Lisbon for nothing 12 months later.
“We didn’t know an awful lot about him,” said Nicky Hunt, who was preparing to make his Premier League debut for Bolton. He was 19.
After 61 minutes, Bolton trailed 1-0 but United were unconvincing and the visitors had started to create a few chances.
“Alex Ferguson obviously thought ‘I am not happy with this, I am going to have to bring on the best player in the world’,” Hunt said.
“I had played a lot of reserves football against wingers and strikers. At that time, wingers were usually just head down, kick it, cross it. When he came on, my main focus was to smash him. I did it twice, the first two times he got the ball.
“He got annoyed, thought ‘who’s this?’ and started turning it on. It was so hard. I was watching his feet, when I should have been watching the ball. It was mind-boggling at times.
“He had these stepovers, skills and tricks. Thierry Henry and Ryan Giggs did it but not that quick, not that fast and not as many times. It was continuous. He could use both feet and go past you both ways. It was hard watching him, the ball and his feet and your own legs because if they get crossed, you are falling over.
“I played against him five or six times overall and had a few torrid afternoons chasing after his number seven shirt.”
The great entertainer
There is some revision of Ronaldo’s time at Old Trafford. United’s blanket coverage has tended not to focus on his first three seasons at the club, which were scarred by inconsistency. It was not until the 2006-07 season that he really began to deliver top performances on a consistent basis.
“Some people say now that the Ronaldo debut was the best they had ever seen of a United player,” said Kilduff. “What about Wayne Rooney? He scored a hat-trick in the Champions League. People almost forget about that.
“That Bolton game was more about the crowd. The game was not that good and they wanted to be entertained. They bought into the stepovers. He added excitement and there was clearly something about him.
“He was good against Bolton but his career at United did take a while to get going. He beat people but nothing came of it. He would roll around 20 times when he had been kicked and moan at the referee. A few games after the Bolton game, we played Charlton and their fans were singing ‘you bought the wrong Ronaldo’.”
Of Ronaldo’s 118 Manchester United goals, 91 (77%) were scored in his final three seasons, during which United won the Premier League three times, won the Champions League and in addition reached the final and semi-final, won the Club World Cup and League Cup and reached an FA Cup final and semi-final.
“One of the reasons there was so much hype around him coming back was that he was being linked with [Manchester] City and it was a case of not bearing to see him in a rival shirt,” said Kilduff. “Now we have got him.
“When he first came, we didn’t know what we were going to get but it is a bit like that now.
“He is not the Ronaldo who goes running up the wing and doing the stepover. He is more the centre-forward who takes the free-kicks. He still has the leap in the air. He has that something extra, which we didn’t have before. He can do something magical. It puts the fear factor into the opposition.”
‘Amazing’ reception guaranteed
Will Ronaldo’s arrival be a force for good or will his personality and status irritate his new team-mates? When he scored two late goals to turn Portugal’s World Cup qualifier against the Republic of Ireland on its head last week, he had missed a penalty he took ahead of Bruno Fernandes, who has a superb spot-kick record at United.
Solskjaer needs to manage this dressing-room dynamic as the United boss is now under intense scrutiny.
The Newcastle game is supposed to be a celebration. The last time Ronaldo played against them at Old Trafford, he scored a hat-trick in a 6-0 win.
“He will get an amazing reception,” said Kilduff. “But the incentive for Newcastle is massive isn’t it?
“The last thing you want is all this euphoria to be followed by a draw or a defeat.”