The nine days that changed Cristiano Ronaldo and Man United forever

Cristiano Ronaldo and Man United changed in just NINE days, IAN LADYMAN recalls the Lisbon night when he embarrassed Sir Alex Ferguson’s side and altered the Old Trafford picture… forever!

  • Cristiano Ronaldo had bamboozled Manchester United before joining the club 
  • Fielding against them in a game, Ronaldo’s display sped up their deal to sign him
  • Rio Ferdinand, Ryan Giggs and Gary Neville all enthused about the teenage star 
  • He also enjoyed a memorable debut against Bolton, albeit with too many tricks
  • Sportsmail recalls the night Ronaldo shone against United, and his debut after 

Sportsmail‘s Ian Ladyman was covering Manchester United when Cristiano Ronaldo was first signed in August 2003. 

Ronaldo, back at United after over a decade away, is set to make his second debut for the club against Newcastle this weekend, and anticipation is high. 

So here, we recall the night the teenager bamboozled United in a friendly for Sporting Lisbon – and his debut for the Old Trafford club nine days later.

Cristiano Ronaldo and Manchester United’s future changed forever in the space of nine days

The lasting memory of that hot night in Lisbon was of the white boots adorning those quick, dancing feet. Though a look back at the video now reveals them actually to have been silver. Knowing what we know now about Cristiano Ronaldo, we should not be surprised.

Manchester United were in Portugal in August 2003 on their way home from a pre-season tour of America’s west coast. They had agreed to play a game to mark the opening of Sporting’s new stadium. The players, jetlagged after three weeks on the road, did not want to be there.

As it turned out, nobody who was present will ever forget it.

Ronaldo bamboozled United in August 2003 and then made his debut just over a week later

It’s easy to say 18 years on that you remember Ronaldo and what he did that night. But it’s true. Everybody does.

Pre-season matches are almost never memorable but this one was. Tall, athletic and asked to remove his earrings before kick-off, Ronaldo was impossible to ignore.

United and Sir Alex Ferguson knew all about the 18-year-old. Unbeknown to the travelling English media – three of us in all from newspapers – an agreement was already in place to sign him two years down the line.

Nobody else had ever heard of Ronaldo. Not the United players, nor anybody in the press box. At that point, he had not even played for Portugal.

United’s jetlagged players struggled to deal with Ronaldo, who impressed with dancing feet

That night he was the best player on the field. Ronaldo played as though auditioning. In those boots, his feet looked huge.

Every time he received the ball – which was often – he would run with it, usually straight at the hapless United full back John O’Shea. Sometimes he would just lose possession but sometimes he would not.

The trick he pulled on Darren Fletcher to set up his team’s third goal in a 3-1 win is one he would be happy to repeat even now. Late in the game, he ran half the length of the field towards his own goal to tackle David Bellion on the slide. 

He really must have been trying to impress. By the end, the home crowd had started to call ‘Ole’ with each passing trick.

A number of United’s players enthused to Sir Alex Ferguson about the then-teenage Ronaldo

The story goes that O’Shea had to be treated for dizziness at half-time. Roy Keane even repeats that one in his own book, and Ferguson has since spoken of the Irish defender wearing a ‘look of pain and bewilderment’.

‘We always joked with Sheasy that he had helped seal the deal by playing like a f*****g clown against Ronaldo,’ wrote Keane.

‘But in fairness he was jetlagged like the rest of us.

‘What impressed me was that Cristiano then had an option to stay in Lisbon for a couple of years but he came over to Manchester straight away. I thought it was a brave decision. After a few days’ training, I thought he was going to be one of the world’s greatest players.’

Roy Keane said Ronaldo would be one of the best ever players after just a few days’ training

One of several myths that circulate around that night in Lisbon is that Ferguson signed Ronaldo after urgings from his players at full-time. It is true that on the plane home Rio Ferdinand, Ryan Giggs and Gary Neville all enthused about him.

However, the significant decision taken that night was merely to bring the deal forward. Ferguson knew Arsenal and Liverpool were circulating and feared Ronaldo’s display could effectively turn what he had hoped to be a nice, quiet piece of stealthy transfer business into a very public auction.

Ferguson sent his trusted kit man Albert Morgan into the stands at half-time to alert United chief executive Peter Kenyon to a dramatic and urgent change in circumstances.

‘We are not leaving here without having signed that boy,’ Ferguson told him.

There was no settling-in period for Ronaldo, who made his debut as a substitute against Bolton

And so it was, in a small side room off the dressing rooms at Estadio Jose Alvalade, that a £12.5million transfer was rushed through in the presence of a teenage Ronaldo, still in his kit, and his agent Jorge Mendes.

‘The first thing I noticed that night was his balance and physique,’ said Giggs, who watched the game from the bench. ‘He had lovely quick feet even if he tended to overdo the step-overs.’

Within days the Premier League was to be introduced to all of that and more. Amazingly, there was to be no settling-in period for United’s new signing. Having only arrived in England on August 12, Ronaldo made his debut as a substitute as his new club beat Bolton 4-0 at Old Trafford four days later. 

The journey from that friendly in Lisbon to the start of a new life on Europe’s biggest stage had taken just nine heady days.

Ronaldo played 29 minutes off the bench and went on to terrify his opponents at Old Trafford

Once again the impact was memorable. Ronaldo was given 29 minutes off the bench and provided a mixture of football wizardry and high comedy.

Giggs’ reference to step-overs was appropriate. There were far too many. Sometimes he would confuse only himself. He fell over at least twice of his own volition.

Equally, Ronaldo terrified Sam Allardyce’s Bolton. Then, as now, it was his directness that stood out. He has always been a devastating straight-line runner.

United were leading by a goal when Ronaldo came on and by four at full-time. Coincidence? Maybe not.

A devastating straight-line runner, Ronaldo’s directness had stood out and United scored four

He won a penalty that Ruud van Nistelrooy missed and then crossed beautifully, only for United’s Dutch forward to head wide from three yards.

Commentating for the club TV station, United legend Pat Crerand said: ‘You just want him to get the ball don’t you?’

Ferguson, writing in his second autobiography, was equally enthusiastic about that day.

‘The Bolton defenders were in knots and the crowd responded as though a Messiah had materialised in front of their very eyes,’ said Ferguson.

Ferguson described the crowd as believing a ‘Messiah had materialised in front of their eyes’

‘He had the biggest impact on United fans since Eric Cantona.’

Ronaldo did not score his first United goal until November against Portsmouth and managed just four in the league all season.

His assimilation into the English game was, in the end, more gradual than those early unforgettable flurries suggested.

They loved him at Carrington, though, and the ones that matter still do. Keane, Neville, Ferdinand, Ferguson.

Ronaldo did not score his first United goal until November and his assimilation was gradual

‘The players were good with him in training,’ said Ferguson.

‘At first when he was tackled he would let out a terrible scream. But the players would give him pelters. He soon learned not to make that kind of racket.

‘His intelligence helped. He is a very smart boy. Once he realised the players would not be a willing audience for his screaming and amateur dramatics, he stopped.’

Ronaldo’s return to United has completed the circle. This time, it will be a five-time Ballon D’Or winner setting the example to others.

His return to United completes the circle, and Ronaldo is now a five-time Ballon d’Or winner

For the record, Sportsmail’s report that night in Lisbon made no mention of the home team’s young starlet. 

Our attention was on another new United player, Eric Djemba-Djemba. His Old Trafford career was to go less well.

Meanwhile the Guardian’s headline informed us: ‘The Man United roadshow came grinding to a halt.’

That didn’t turn out to be entirely true either. With Ronaldo on board, they won eight major trophies in the next six seasons.




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