On Friday 27 August, at exactly 16:51 British Standard Time, Manchester United shocked the football world when they announced the return of Cristiano Ronaldo.
In the 11 days since he touched down in England, the Red Devils have transformed from top-four contenders to genuine Premier League title fancies and Champions League prospects. Such is the remarkable impact of one man.
18 years after he first delighted the Old Trafford crowd, the Portuguese legend once again donned the famous strip of the Red Devils – scoring twice in a note-perfect second debut.
Here’s the incredible story of his first fortnight back in Manchester, from his shock switch to his debut and the bullish promise of what is still to come.
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The rapidity with which Ronaldo’s return was sealed caught the football world by surprise. In just 24 hours, it seemed all-but-certain he was heading to Manchester City, before a late twist saw him sign for United.
The turning point came when Manchester City’s second massive transfer target of the window, Harry Kane, could not fashion a move away from Tottenham. City already threw a hundred million pounds in Aston Villa’s direction for Jack Grealish. Grealish’s England captain in Kane was meant to be the £127m pièce de resistance, but they couldn’t get the deal done. City immediately turned to Ronaldo. For the blue half of Manchester, inking a deal for the world’s greatest male scorer – having won four Premier League titles since United last lifted the trophy – would have proved almost the ultimate statement of superiority over United.
On Thursday, August 26, City’s deal for Ronaldo appeared almost complete. Behind the scenes, though, it was not so simple. City staunchly rejected Juventus’ demands for a €30m transfer fee, and similarly shut down the Italians’ hopes of including City’s Brazilian striker Gabriel Jesus as part of the deal. Jorge Mendes – 25 years after the super-agent brokered his first transfer – turned to United. It all fell into place so quickly. Ronaldo’s former mentor, the legendary United coach Sir Alex Ferguson, implored the board to go all-out to bring him home to Old Trafford. Ronaldo’s former United teammates like Rio Ferdinand hit the phones to convince him, as did Portuguese and new United teammate Bruno Fernandes. United coach – another former teammate of Ronaldo’s – Ole Gunnar Solskjaer also spoke over the phone to make his case.
While a wary City refused to splash a transfer fee on a 36-year-old, United had no such hesitation. They offered €12m immediately. A compromise was soon reached: €15m up front, plus bonuses up to €8m. Ronaldo, beaming, signed on the dotted line on Friday morning.
In 24 hours, United had gazumped their Manchester rivals. They had not just found an answer to one of their biggest missing pieces, but equally as importantly had robbed City of the chance to do the same.
Ronaldo had been reduced to the ignominy of coming off the bench for Juventus’ first game of the campaign – a 2-2 draw with Udinese. It was his final act in the black-and-white striped jersey of the Old Lady of Turin. He drove to the club’s training ground, the Vinovo, and packed his bags for Manchester.
Ronaldo would not fly to England immediately. First he was off to national team duty, captaining Portugal against the Republic of Ireland on September 1. He scored twice in a thrilling 2-1 comeback win – breaking the all-time men’s international goalscoring record in the process. He removed his shirt in celebration of the milestone, picking up a yellow card that ruled him out of his nation’s next World Cup qualifier against Azerbaijan. Someone more cynical might claim it was a deliberate act to allow him to leave the national squad early. Deliberate or not, it worked. The following day – the evening of Thursday the second – a private jet touched down at a private terminal of Manchester Airport. Ronaldo was greeted by Darren Fletcher, his former teammate and the club’s technical director.
The Portuguese star went into five days of quarantine. On Tuesday, he met with Solskjaer at United’s Carrington training base, before meeting some teammates and undergoing a light session largely based on possession drills. There were still some familiar faces around the club – from chefs to backroom staff, all receiving a fist-bump and his beaming smile. On Wednesday and Thursday, United’s players who had been on international duty returned to the club and joined in training sessions.
Meanwhile, the Premier League had bent the rules to allow the famous CR7 to return. Edinson Cavani had worn the number seven already that season, meaning Ronaldo would be forced to pick a different number. Cavani gave it up – begrudgingly or otherwise – and the Premier League obliged the desires of fans the world over. The Ronaldo 7 jersey was on sale, and soon smashing records. It flew off the shelves, with lines around the block at United’s official megastore (which ran out on multiple days in the following week). Within 12 hours, his was already the most-sold player jersey of the Premier League season.
By Thursday’s training session, Ronaldo was ready to lead. He spoke to his teammates, according to The Athletic, informing them that their level must rise in the hunt for silverware.
Ronaldo had declared the same in his first interview with the club on Friday. He paced the Old Trafford pitch alongside yet another former teammate in Wes Brown, whom he combined with in the Champions League final of 2007/08 for a goal. He announced to the world: “This is why I am here. I am not here for vacation.
“As I told you, before was good, winning important things and I wore the shirt before many years ago, but I am here to win again … I am ready to go.”
On Friday night, Ronaldo again addressed his teammates, this time at the club’s Lowry Hotel.
Solskjaer later revealed: “Maybe not everyone knew Cristiano’s name – but they do now!
“He said his name was Cristiano and that’s as much as I can say,” the manager stated, adding “When anyone comes into the team they have to introduce themselves.”
While fellow arrivals Jadon Sancho and Rafael Varane were forced to include a song as part of their traditional introductions, Ronaldo avoided the ritual. The Athletic says he told his teammates he had already paid his dues – 18 years ago, when he first arrived at Old Trafford from Sporting Lisbon.
Earlier that day, Solskjaer had told his official pre-match press conference that Ronaldo would ‘certainly’ feature against Newcastle United on Saturday. The only question was whether he would start.
He did, much to the delight of the Old Trafford faithful. They had packed the stands early to watch him warm-up, a buzz going around the Theatre of Dreams beyond any atmosphere in recent years. He pinged shots with both feet, flicked his dazzling feet around a few step-overs and other tricks, and even blasted a free kick off the upright into the net. All the while he was smiling – though he would later say “I was really nervous, maybe I did not show it.” His start was rusty, a wild swing of his left boot drawing ironic cheers from the crowd. Ronaldo just smiled.
And then, after 45 frustrating minutes, he finally read from the Hollywood script. Mason Greenwood cut in from the right flank, unleashed a shot. A deflection caught Newcastle keeper Freddie Woodman off. He stopped the shot – but only bundled it into the path of Ronaldo. He could hardly miss. After some 800 goals for club and country, he was never going to.
A tap-in. The simplest of finishes to end a 12-year, 124-day hiatus between Premier League goals. The crowd erupted and roared as one when Ronaldo delivered his trademark ‘Siuuuuuu!’ celebration.
Newcastle equalised, before Ronaldo did it once again. Luke Shaw played him through down the left, and Ronaldo rifled the ball with his left boot between Woodman’s legs and into the back of the net. His 86th league goal for United, who went on to run out 4-1 winners.
The entire game, Old Trafford reverberated with chants of his name. He was asked – asked – by Solskjaer if he wanted a substitution. He refused, and Greenwood was taken off for Anthony Martial in the 85th minute instead.
“I didn’t want to take him off unless he wanted to,” said Solskjaer. “He’s had a little pre-season, lost a few games for Juventus and Portugal, so we needed to get 90 minutes into him.”
‘Like he never left’: Ronaldo scores TWICE in ‘unbelievable’ Man Utd return
In the stands were celebrities galore. Nigerian artist Burna Boy, who would bring Paul Pogba on stage at a festival later in the weekend. Stormzy, Olly Murs, Gary Oldman. Sir Alex Ferguson smiled and clapped fervently at his favourite son. Even despised club owner Avram Glazer, a rare sight at United games, was in attendance for the first time in two years – and hardly earned the brutal derision of the crowd which has become standard fare at United games. Jorge Mendes was there, of course, but reportedly missed Ronaldo’s first goal on the brink of halftime. The Athletic claims he’d wandered off for his traditional halftime cup of tea.
There was another, very special, figure in the crowd: Ronaldo’s mother Dolores Aveiro. Ronaldo has spoken in the past of banning his mother from attending matches due to her nerves – revealing she has twice fainted watching him from the stands.
Ronaldo previously told Daily Mail: “She’s not allowed now to watch big games, I say, ‘Listen, I don’t have a father any more. I don’t want to lose my mum, too, so you’re not going to watch the quarterfinals, semi-finals, or finals.
“She gets so nervous, I don’t understand why. She is not allowed now to watch big games. I get friends to stay with her and she goes for walks around the house. She fainted two times in the stadium.”
But on this occasion, there were tears in her eyes as she watched one of her son’s biggest games from a private box.
Amid the ecstasy was one brutal reminder of Ronaldo’s history he is desperate to keep from the spotlight. Above the stadium, a plane bore a banner reading: ‘Believe Kathryn Mayorga’. Mayorga, an American woman, claims Ronaldo had raped her in his hotel suite in Las Vegas in 2009, shortly before his move to Real Madrid. Ronaldo has always strenuously denied the allegations, which were made public in 2017, but settled out of court in 2010 for US$375,000. His lawyers said in a 2018 statement: “This agreement is by no means a confession of guilt.” Las Vegas police reopened an investigation that year, but the following year opted not to charge Ronaldo since: “the allegations … cannot be proven beyond a reasonable doubt.”
A subsequent civil case is ongoing, with UK newspaper The Mirror this year reporting Mayorga was claiming £56.5 million including damages and legal expenses. Amid the triumphant fanfare of Ronaldo’s return to Old Trafford, the sexual assault allegations cast a deeply concerning shadow.
As Ronaldo was announced as a United player, the excitement around the club – and not just its fans – was off the charts. Players took to social media in droves to express their unfiltered excitement, and those who have subsequently fronted the media have spoken of his immediate impact around the squad. Expectations were immediately lifted – in no small part due to Ronaldo’s own statements both public and to his team on the training paddock.
Solskjaer declared after the debut that Ronaldo ‘lifts everyone’. “He does what he does. He lifts everyone and gets everyone around the place so focused. He puts demands on himself which then will put demands on his teammates and on us. That’s why he has done so much in his career and been so disciplined.”
He added: “I think seeing Raphael [Varane] and Cristiano coming it’s raised everyone’s eyebrows because they are winners, they have won everything there is to win and they put demands on themselves which the young boys, the rest of the team, they look at them and think: ‘That is how you stay at the top.’”
Varane – a former Real Madrid teammate who also joined United this window – also spoke of his professionalism and how he has impacted the group.
“To play with the best is a great pleasure. Cristiano is a great professional, physically he’s always at his best, he always has that finishing quality,” Varane said. “What he will bring to this team is his will to win, his winning mentality.”
United has been missing that mentality since Sir Alex Ferguson’s departure. They have not won the Premier League since 2013, or the Champions League since Ronaldo himself helped them to it in 2008.
Ronaldo now is a far different prospect to the youngster who departed for Madrid 12 years ago. He was then a flashy winger, a dangerous game-breaker with shining trickery. Now he is a deadly scorer, a genuine matchwinner in almost every fixture. As important as his goals will be to helping United succeed will be his capacity to develop and encourage United’s talented corps of young forwards. Even in the warm-ups, Jadon Sancho was spotted asking Ronaldo for advice after watching him dispatch a swerving free-kick.
In his first stint at United, the list of those Ronaldo looked up to for guidance on and off the field was extensive. United greats like Rio Ferdinand, Nemanja Vidic, Paul Scholes, Roy Keane, Ryan Giggs and Gary Neville pulled on the jersey alongside him each week – and all coached by the great Sir Alex.
Now, despite not wearing the captain’s armband, he is a figurehead. A symbol of the grand old days for United. A crucial link between the coach – who was on the park for Ronaldo’s first debut – and the rest of the players.
It is a role Ronaldo has embraced from the moment he stepped off the plane, or onto the training paddock, or onto the famous ground of Old Trafford once again.
“We have a fantastic team, a young team and a fantastic coach,” Ronaldo said. “But … we have to build up confidence. The team needs to be mature if it wants to win the Premier League and Champions League.
“I think we are in a good way, we have to win games, build up the confidence, build up the team and I am here to help the team.”
His desire to help and lead the team back to success was on full display on his return to action – and not just in his clinical finishing.
Remarkably, despite being one of the greatest players of all time, he proved he is still willing to adapt to fit United’s style. Inside the first five minutes of his second debut, he glanced at Mason Greenwood – with the pair deciding in a split-second who would press Matt Richie. It was Ronaldo – almost twice his teammate’s age – who sprinted to close down the opponent. Ronaldo isn’t known for his pressing. Indeed, the very opposite is true. Among Europe’s top leagues, Ronaldo’s defensive pressure and workrate is among the very poorest of strikers – though his age is a crucial factor. But he adopted United’s defend-from-the-front-foot style.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was seen yelling instructions to his star signing on multiple occasions, including to make darting runs between the central defenders to get on the end of Paul Pogba first-time crosses. Ronaldo immediately responded with the correct movement on the next such occasion.
As Solskjaer said after the game: “He’s evolved into a proper team player.”
The joyful manager added: “He’s developed into a miles better footballer than when he was here through the years … I thought he played the game very, very maturely and in a simple way.”
Ronaldo took the Premier League by storm when he first arrived at Old Trafford 18 years ago. Now, just five months shy of his 37th birthday, he is already proving that he is a vastly different player.
In just over two weeks, he has lifted the club’s entire atmosphere and transformed their expectations.
“I want to make history, help Manchester to have great results and win trophies,” he said. Just like he did the first time around.
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