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How Walter Smith "changed" Cristiano Ronaldo at Manchester United to make him the goalscorer he became

Walter Smith, Manchester United, Cristiano Ronaldo
(Image credit: Getty Images)

In the 33-year coaching career of Walter Smith – who has passed away at the age of 73 – his short tenure as assistant manager at Manchester United does not attract much attention.

After all, he had 10 league title and 11 cup wins under his belt.

But one former player says that the time he spent at Old Trafford had a huge effect on the development of a young Cristiano Ronaldo – by not awarding free-kicks in practice games.

Smith joined Manchester United in March 2004, during Ronaldo's first season in England when he was just 19-years-old.

And according to former United midfielder Darren Fletcher, Smith came up with an unusual approach in training that turned the Portuguese forward into the unforgiving goalscorer he has been for the past 15 years.

"For me, it was Walter Smith [who changed Ronaldo's game]", Fletcher said on beIN Sports in 2020.

Even as a teenager, Fletcher says that Ronaldo's potential was clear: "You could see the talent. You could see this charismatic kid, you could see his ability, you could see the drive to become the best player in the world."

But his penchant for flicks, tricks and constant dribbling "frustrated the life out of everybody".

"Eventually, Walter Smith came in, and he decided not to give fouls in training... When Ronaldo was doing his skills, and not passing the ball, and taking the mick, the lads would foul him. 

"Whereas in the first six months of the season, the foul was given as you'd expect, Walter said 'No, no fouls'.

"For two weeks, Ronaldo was tearing his hair out. And he was going bananas."

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Then, according to Fletcher, Ronaldo figured out what he had to do.

"What happens after a few weeks? Ronaldo starts moving the ball because he's sick of getting kicked. Now he starts playing one or two touches and running. Now he starts getting goals. Now it starts clicking in his head: 'I'm actually starting to score more goals. Now I'm starting to make an impact on games'. 

"That was the beginning of Ronaldo's transition."

Asked whether Ronaldo would agree that Smith had played such a role in his development, Fletcher replied: "I think he realised it, because he's a very clever man, Ronaldo.

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