RONALDO — Mike Awoyinfa Column

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           (Culled from My Autobiography)  By Alex Ferguson

CHRISTIANO Ronaldo was the most gifted player I managed.  He surpassed all the other great ones I coached at United.  And I had many.  The only ones who could be placed near him would be a couple of the home-produced players, Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs, because they contributed so prodigiously to Manchester United for two decades.  That longevity, consistency and those behavior patterns were quite exceptional.  

We lost our wizard, Cristiano, to Real Madrid, in the end, but we looked back at his time with us with pride and gratitude.  In six seasons with us, from 2003 to 2009, he scored 118 times in 292 games and won the Champions League, three Premier League titles, one FA Cup and two League Cups.  He scored in 2008 Champions League final, against Chelsea in Moscow, and kicked a ball for us for the final time 12 months later, in the final against Barcelona in Rome.  

In between we watched a special talent bloom on our training pitches at Carrington and in our first XI, which passed through a lean spell in the middle years of the decade.  We helped Ronaldo to be the player he was and he helped us recapture the excitement and self-expression of Manchester United teams.

Madrid paid 80 million pounds in cash for him, and do you know why?  It was a way for Florentino Perez, their president, to say to the world, ‘We are Real Madrid, we are the biggest of the lot.’  It was a clever move by them and a declaration of their intent to chase the game’s most famous players.  

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Ramon Calderon, Perez’s predecessor, had claimed the previous year that Cristiano would one day be a Real Madrid player.  I knew full well that if they produced the 80 million pounds, he would have to go.  We could not block his fervent wish to return to Iberia and wear the famous white shirt of Di Stefano or Zidane.  The reality of managing Ronaldo, as of other talents who came to Manchester United as teenagers was that you could oversee the early years fairly comfortably, because they were not yet global idols, they were on the way up.  At the point they became mega-stars, as Ronaldo did, you asked yourself a question that Carlos Queiroz and I discussed all the time: ‘How long are we going to be able to keep Cristiano Ronaldo?’  

Carlos was as accurate as it was possible to be.  He said: ‘Alex, if you get five years out of him, you’ve struck gold.  There’s no precedent for a Portuguese player going to another country at seventeen years old and staying five years.’  The fact that we had him for six was a bonus.  In that period we won a European Cup and three League titles with him.  I consider that a pretty good return.  

When the possibility of him leaving edged towards being a probability, I reached a gentleman’s agreement with him.  I went to Carlos’s home in Portugal to find the boy expressing an urge to go to Real Madrid, and told him: ‘You can’t go this year, not after the way Calderon has approached this issue.’  I said, ‘I know you want to go to Real Madrid.  But I’d rather shoot you than sell you to that guy now.  If you perform, don’t mess us about, and someone comes and offers us a world record fee, then we will let you go.’  I had already conveyed that message to his agent Jorge Mendes.

I did well to calm him down.  I told him that the reason I was refusing to sell him that year was because of Calderon.  I said, ‘If I do that, all my honour’s gone, everything’s gone for me, and I don’t care if you have to sit in the stands.  I know it won’t come to that, but I just have to tell you I will not let you leave this year.’

I reported this conversation to David Gill, who passed it through to the Glazers.  I’m sure it found its way back to Real Madrid as well.  At that point we were petrified that the details of our agreement might creep out.  We warned Cristiano to that effect.  I don’t believe he would have told Real Madrid.  His agent Jorge Mendes is, I should say, the best agent I dealt with, without a doubt.  He was responsible, looked after his players to an incredible extent and was very fair with clubs.  My feeling was that he was anxious about Cristiano going to Spain for the obvious reason that Real might swallow him up.  Different agents, different people.  I think he feared losing him.  

What I always thought about Ronaldo was that, even if he was having a dire game, he would always create three chances.  Every game.  Look at all the matches.  In the mountain of video evidence, you could not find one instance where he failed to create at least three chances.  He possessed an unbelievable talent.  I can place everything on that list: training performances, strength, courage, skill with either foot, heading ability.  

In the early days, there is no doubt that he acted a bit.  His earliest lessons were in a theatrical culture.  Injustice was never far from the judgments formed around him.  But he changed.  One aspect frequently ignored by his critics was the speed he moved at.  You only need to tap a player going that fast and there is a tendency for him to go over.  Human balance isn’t refined enough to protect the runner from tipping over at an unnaturally fast speed.  A wee prod into the side of the leg or an elbow into the body can disturb the equilibrium.  The failure to appreciate that speed-to-balance factor was unfair.  

In the early days, I accept, he showboated a lot, and Carlos worked hard on that part of his repertoire.  He would say to Cristiano all the time, ‘You’re only a great player when people outside the club start recognizing you as such.  It’s not enough to be a great player to us at Manchester United.  When you start delivering passes, delivering the crosses at the right time, people won’t be able to read you.  That’s when the great players emerge.”      

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