The Portuguese superstar arrived at Old Trafford as a teenager in 2003, but was set for a far from linear progression to becoming arguably the best player in world football today, explains former Manchester United man and current pundit Gary Neville.
“He didn’t arrive at Manchester United as someone who was setting the tone for everybody else. It wasn’t a case of he came in and all of a sudden everyone else upped their game, that’s not how it was,” said Neville. “He became that out of what was in that dressing room. Cristiano was butchered and battered for two or three years at Manchester United and he has said it made him a man.”
Manchester United fans who followed a young Cristiano Ronaldo in those early days would confirm they had a special talent on their hands, but one that came with quite a few habits he still needed to iron out of his game. The ‘butchering’ that Neville is referring to likely came both physically and verbally. Physically, his opponents on match-day would not take kindly to his flamboyant showboating, nor would his teammates in training. Verbally, Alex Ferguson would have been there to carefully nurture Cristiano when he needed it, but also to guide him through maturing as a footballer and as a man.
“The club, and Sir Alex (Ferguson), and the players all set the tone for each other. If you look at his performances in the first two or three years, his maturity, his decision making, his physicality, his petulance, they were all smoothed out over a period of three or four years at the club.”
Cristiano enjoyed a hugely successful Manchester United career, but his performances in the 2007/08 season in particular stand out. At the time, it was unusual for a player to score over 40 goals, even for a striker. “He was just out of this world, like he was from another planet,” says Neville of Ronaldo’s performances from that season.
Those kinds of figures were rarities and the 2008/09 season for Cristiano, while still impressive with 26 goals in total, suggested the previous season was to be a ‘one-of’ deal. Instead, such figures have become almost routine for the now Real Madrid man, scoring at least 50 goals in six out of seven seasons for the current Champions League holders.