Year Zero: The making of Cristiano Ronaldo (Manchester United, 2006/07)
Gone was the talented, but fragile waif that had so bewitched in a half-hour debut cameo against Bolton in August 2003. Slowly, Ronaldo was discovering that it was goals, not step-overs, that win games.
Even Ferguson, his continual apologist, agreed recalling those early seasons as “the wee show-off who was desperate to convince everyone how good he was”.
By November, the penny had dropped. Beginning with a devilish free-kick against Portsmouth (no, not that one) Ronaldo lit up the league, the boos a thing of the past. Further man-of-the-match displays followed at Chelsea and Everton, as did the Premiership’s Player of the Month award.
“When he came to Manchester United, he was a show pony,” centre-back Rio Ferdinand later recalled. “He wanted to do skills, he wanted to show people how good he was and take people on, take the mickey out of full-backs.
“Then he realised it was about end product and to become the best player in the world it would be all about purely scoring goals, or setting goals up for others and having an impact on games. He forced himself to become that guy.”
For perhaps the first time in his United career, Ronaldo backed up performance after performance. If November served notice of a potential being realised, December was its explosion.
Beginning with a goal and an assist in the Manchester derby, Ronaldo scored three successive braces over the Christmas period against Aston Villa, Wigan and Reading to send United top. The Portuguese again received the Player of the Month crown, becoming only the third player (after Dennis Bergkamp and Robbie Fowler) to win the award in consecutive months.
It didn’t stop here. Ever since his arrival from Sporting in August 2003 for £12.7m, Ronaldo and Ferguson had a £100 bet on how many goals the former would score each season. That first campaign it was 10. Ronaldo lost. In 2004/05, it was raised to 15. He lost again. And again in 2005/06.
For 2006/07, with Ferguson having refused to take his winnings every year, Ronaldo raised the stakes to £400 and won his bet by February.
His 15th goal of the season came with the 87th-minute winner in a 2-1 come-from-behind victory at Fulham. It was a carbon copy of the goal he had scored against Reading earlier in the season, cutting inside from the left before hitting across a helpless keeper. This time, it was Ronaldo who refused to accept Ferguson’s money.
In April, the European floodgates opened at last. His brace in the Champions League last eight in a 7-1 home win against Roma were his first goals in his 27th appearance in the competition. He has scored 101 in the 115 games since that day.
The following month, Ronaldo scored his 50th United goal, a penalty against Manchester City to all but secure the title. The following day, Mourinho’s Chelsea failed to beat Arsenal and the the player’s first English league championship was secured.
Though United lost to the Special One’s Blues in the FA Cup final, Ronaldo had definitively arrived, his dazzlingly consistent displays – and 23 goals in all competitions – earning him all four individual awards available from the league.
Start of something big
Despite the settled bets, trophy and individual plaudits, however, still Ronaldo 2.0 wasn’t satisfied. This season had just been the start. At the beginning of 2007, Rene Meulensteen returned to Old Trafford after an unsuccessful six-month period managing Brondby. Few coaches cut Ronaldo to the core as much as the technical skills coach.
“Cristiano,” Meulensteen said as the season came to a close, “I’ve looked at your goals last season, and you only scored 23 because you want to score the perfect goal all the time. ‘Look at me! Top corner!’ The most important individuals are the ones who elevate the team, not themselves. You think it’s the other way round. No, no, no. Elevate the team and the team will then elevate you.”
The pair worked incessantly, studying videos of Alan Shearer and Thierry Henry to improve his output ever further. Working on three zones – No.1: in front of goal, No.2: either side, No.3: outside the area – Ronaldo became deadly. Who says goalscorers are born, not made?
Meulensteen asked Ronaldo how many he thought he could score in 2007/08? Between 30 and 35 came the reply. “I think you can score 40,” deadpanned Meulensteen.
By June 2008, Ronaldo had won another league title, the Champions League and scored 42 times. In the nine seasons since then for both United and Real Madrid, he has scored more than 40 goals in seven of them.
“When he was at United, between 2006 and 2008, I still maintain that’s his best two football years as a football player, in terms of his contribution through the whole game,” Gary Neville said recently.
“Since he’s gone to Real Madrid he’s contributed enormously to everything they’ve done but he’s living more off moments rather than a contribution through a whole 90 minutes.”
Still, not bad for someone who began his first great season as the world’s biggest winker.
FourFourTwo Films presents Cristiano Ronaldo: Relentless - the story of his journey from Madeira to Madrid according to his team-mates, coaches and the man himself