RIO FERDINAND remembers distinctly the first time that he realised Cristiano Ronaldo was destined for stardom.
Manchester United had just played Sporting in Lisbon in 2003, “and Cristiano was brilliant,” Ferdinand recalled. “We were all back in the dressing room, talking about him, and me and Nicky Butt went up to the manager [ Sir Alex Ferguson] and said, ‘Are we going to sign him or not?’
“We went out on to the team bus and had to wait for about an hour because the directors were upstairs, doing the deal to sign him.
“He really immersed himself into the culture at United, especially the sense of humour. People have their assumptions about him, but he really is a great guy.”
He may have been raised in Madeira and now represents Madrid’s unchallenged poster boy, but Ronaldo might well have ‘Made in Manchester’ woven into his boots on Wednesday night when he returns to the city for the first time since leaving United in June 2009, with the intention of confirming Real Madrid’s progression to the Champions League knockout stages at the expense of Manchester City.
During his six years at Old Trafford following his £12.28?million signing as David Beckham’s replacement, Ronaldo was transformed from a wiry, infuriating winger – “He was a bit of a show-pony when he arrived,” Ferdinand added – into Lionel Messi’s only serious rival for the title of best player on the planet.
For most players, such a claim would represent the realisation of an impossibly giddy dream, the stuff of childish fairytale. Yet, according to those who worked with him, for Ronaldo it was just something else to tick off his checklist.
“He used to walk around the training ground telling us all he was going to be the best in the world and we would shake our heads and laugh,” recalls former United defender Quinton Fortune.
“But he was so dedicated and determined. He would finish training, strap on some ankle weights and go back on to the pitch to work on his step-overs. We used to take the p--- out of him, and he would laugh at himself too, but he always did everything right and it shows. Look at him now.”
Three years on, Ferguson cites Ronaldo’s development at United as his sales pitch to prospective new signings, having told Eden Hazard this summer that the Belgian could follow in the Portuguese’s footsteps before he opted instead to sign for Chelsea.
Ferguson revealed at the weekend that he retained a flickering hope that Ronaldo would one day return to United, with the player’s public admission that he is unhappy at the Bernabeu contrasting with his contentment at Old Trafford – with the exception of his disdain for the Mancunian climate.
“The weather was a big bugbear for Cristiano,” admits former United captain Gary Neville. “He really didn’t like the cold November and December mornings, but he grew up in Madeira, so you can’t blame him for that.
“But while playing for Real was something he dreamed of, I think, even now, he probably misses the special harmony he enjoyed at United. He was a great lad, always joking about with Anderson and Patrice Evra, and you won’t find anyone with a bad word about him.”
If Ronaldo’s off-field confidence was obvious the moment he swaggered into the lobby at United’s Carrington headquarters, Ronaldo the footballer took time to develop.
“He took the No?7 shirt when he signed and that had been David Beckham’s,” Fortune recalls. “We would tell Cristiano that it was a big jersey for him to wear and that Becks would be back within a year to two to take it back.
“But he just shrugged his shoulders and told us that he would prove himself and that he would ‘own’ the number seven.”
“He wasn’t the finished article when he came here,” added Ferdinand. “He practised all the time, sometimes taking a bag of balls out on his own after training, but we also made him realise that it was about contributing to the team with goals and assists.
“By the time he left, he was a machine. The top players are judged by their statistics – goals, assists – and if he came off the pitch without either he would feel as though he hadn’t contributed.
“He and Messi are now way ahead of the rest. Their stats are incredible, but Cristiano has worked hard to be where he is and all that extra work is why he has gone up another level at Real.”
That work rate was not just not measured in sweat. Others at United recall how Ronaldo would flip open his laptop on train journeys back from fixtures in London and watch back his performances, looking for areas of weakness in his game, citing his desire to be as immaculate on the pitch as his appearance off it.
But while he developed a public persona that had him characterised as surly, moody and arrogant, his private face was rather different.
“It really annoys me when I hear that description of Ronaldo,” admits Hayley McQueen, the Sky Sports News presenter who worked for United’s television channel, MUTV, during Ronaldo’s spell at the club.
“He was always really polite to everybody at the club and I remember how he would indulge Kath, the lady on the reception at the training ground, who has probably been at United for 40 years.
“Ronaldo would walk in, clutching his Louis Vuitton bag and smelling of Crème de la Mer face cream – I’m eternally grateful to him for introducing me to that! – and then put on a Mancunian accent, saying, ‘Eh up, Kath, do you want a cup of tea?’ before bringing one back for her.
“He came back from one pre-season with a tan that could best be described as ‘mahogany’ and the players were all winding him up about it before the photo shoot at Old Trafford.
“So he ran towards the big heat lamps that are used on the pitch nowadays and lay underneath them, pretending to be having a sunbed session.
“You would never see Cristiano out in town, though. He was really close to his mum and spent his time at home with his family, even though he had the world at his feet.”
His popularity within the dressing room at United ensured that his World Cup clash with Wayne Rooney in 2006, accompanied by Ronaldo’s wink to the referee after Rooney had been sent off for stamping on Ricardo Carvalho, did nothing to destabilise the pair’s relationship.
Indeed, within months of Ronaldo’s £80?million transfer to Real, Rooney admitted at a supporters’ Q&A that Ronaldo was the one player he would sign for United because “he is the best player in the world”.
Ronaldo has not been back to Manchester since his departure. There have been no visits to Old Trafford or Carrington, despite him remaining in contact with Ferguson and the likes of Ferdinand, Rooney and Evra.
But while his first time back in town will see him taunted mercilessly by City supporters at the Etihad, it would be typical of the man to rise to the occasion.
“When players like Cristiano are booed and jeered by opposing fans, it is all generated by fear,” Ferdinand remarked. “They have seen what he is capable of and how dangerous he is to them, but he won’t be affected by it in the slightest.”
Ronaldo: The highs and lows against Manchester City
Man Utd 4 Man City 2, Feb 14, 2004
Scores the fourth goal as Kevin Keegan’s team are beaten in an FA Cup fifth-round tie Old Trafford.
Man City 0 Man Utd 1, May 5, 2007
Real Madrid 3 Man City 2, Sept 18, 2012
In his first game against City since leaving United, Ronaldo scores a 90th-minute winner, the ball looping over Vincent Kompany’s head.
Man City 3 Man Utd 1, Jan 14, 2006
Ronaldo earns three-match suspension after being sent off for challenge on City’s Andy Cole.
Man City 0 Man Utd 1, Nov 30, 2008
Sent off at the Etihad. After being booked for a foul on Shaun Wright-Phillips, Ronaldo gets second yellow card for deliberate handball.
Man Utd 2 Man City 0, May 10, 2009
Ronaldo opens the scoring in his final Manchester derby, but throws his tracksuit top to the floor after being substituted by Ferguson.