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Cristiano Ronaldo's Manchester United debut, 2003: How he wowed Old Trafford the first time

Cristiano Ronaldo's Manchester United debut
(Image credit: Getty Images)

This feature on Cristiano Ronaldo's Manchester United debut first appeared in the February 2021 issue of FourFourTwo magazine. Subscribe now and never miss an issue!

On August 16, 2003, a pair of substitutes made their debuts for Manchester United. The first went on to become one of the greatest players of all time; the second went on to become Eric Djemba-Djemba.

Djemba-Djemba’s Old Trafford career was doomed before he had stepped on the field. Introduced only six minutes after Cristiano Ronaldo, he had already been left with an impossible act to follow.

Manchester United were labouring against Bolton in their league season opener, leading 1-0 after an hour, when Ronaldo replaced Nicky Butt. Aged 18, with blond streaks in his hair that hinted at a certain confidence, the wonderkid had arrived from Portuguese side Sporting for £12.5m days earlier, taking the No.7 shirt vacated by David Beckham. The crowd greeted CR7’s introduction so loudly, and with such elation, that you wondered whether the new boy could possibly match their sky-high expectations. In fact, he more than exceeded them.

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Receiving the ball for the very first time in a red shirt, he skipped past Nicky Hunt before being upended. “With one of his first touches, I put him on the deck,” the full-back proudly proclaimed years afterwards.

“The right-back rattled him straight away,” Alex Ferguson later wrote. “But Cristiano got back up and demanded another pass, right away. I thought, ‘He’s got the balls’.”

Not only did he have the balls, he frequently had the ball in the final half-hour, becoming United’s go-to man as it became obvious how devastatingly effective he could be. “He did about 100 stepovers and earned a penalty,” Kevin Davies later told FFT.

Playing on the left wing, first Ronaldo got his own back on Hunt with a Cruyff turn, then performed some mesmerising stepovers to surge past the defender. 

He was causing such mayhem that just 10 minutes after his entrance, uncertainty in the Trotters’ penalty area led to the starlet being hauled down by Kevin Nolan.

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These days, Ronaldo would seize the ball and stick the penalty into the net himself – back then, Ruud van Nistelrooy had spot-kick duties and was denied by Jussi Jaaskelainen. It didn’t matter: Ronaldo soon grabbed hold of possession again and whipped in a cross that eventually led to Ryan Giggs making it 2-0 from close range.

Still the prodigy wasn’t done. “Of his own volition, Ronaldo moved out to the right wing and put two superb crosses in,” continued his gaffer. “The crowd on that side of the ground responded as if a Messiah had materialised before their eyes.”

Every stepover was met with another cheer. Ronaldo was operating at a tempo higher than anybody else on the pitch. His feet and his mind were just too quick for Wanderers. Discombobulated by the whirlwind sweeping the field, Bolton lost 4-0. “Ronaldo changed the game,” sighed Sam Allardyce.

Ferguson hailed it as “a marvellous debut, almost unbelievable”. “Undoubtedly the most exciting debut performance I’ve ever seen,” was George Best’s assessment, himself an iconic United No.7. By the time Ronaldo left the field at the final whistle, the Old Trafford faithful were chanting his name. For six years, they rarely stopped.

Everyone present that afternoon knew that a star had been born. Only one man has ever been named FIFA World Player of the Year while playing in the Premier League – and it wasn’t Eric Djemba-Djemba.

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