Tony, you worked with Ronaldo during his time at Manchester United – what made him such a special athlete?
What sets him apart from other footballers is his ability to create. This is down to his speed, endurance and repeatability. He’s strong, he’s robust, he has good movement capabilities, ability to play and recover. In addition, he has incredible power components that allow him to reach good jump heights. If you have a look at a lot of the goals that he scored at Manchester United in his last 3-4 years, his leaping is around 50 centimetres. That's even more impressive when he carries the weight of a traditional central defender. If you absorb that impact on a daily basis, you have to be incredibly strong. So what sets him apart is that robustness and I think it’s probably a combination of physical and mental resilience to keep doing it again and again. The genetic component is also there which has obviously been trained and drilled into him.
Did you have measurements to monitor his physical performance?
No we didn’t, unfortunately Cristiano left at a time (in 2009) when we just started to turn around the human performance centre at Carrington. That’s when we really started to validate and audit all the performance details about players, so he just missed out. Obviously the number of games played, performance level and ability to play every three days, you know 50 games a season and high intensity performances in games you know he would always be in the higher end of that in the Premier League.
What do you remember of his development at Old Trafford?
When I look back on his time at Man United I think we witnessed the makings of an incredible footballer’s journey. He had talent, coachability, personality, he ticked all those boxes and that was one of the things that Sir Alex always looked for. I think if you break his career down into those first three years that was probably the polishing bit when he first signed for Manchester United as a teenager. The last three years you saw an incredible explosion, I mean he took the game on and he advanced the game. Here’s a guy who’s nearly 80 kilograms, he can play on the wing, he can jump, he can tackle, he can sprint, he can run. Beyond that he had the ability to play and recover; he averaged three days between games. In his last few years at United. So it was all there, all those ingredients to be a top, top player. In addition to that I think he contributed about 135 goals in his last three seasons at United. So that was the platform and I don’t think there is any doubt that he would continue to operate at that level.
Was he always asking questions, was he like a student?
Yes, I think coachability and asking the right questions is what makes a great athlete. I think we have sports science which is great, but sports science doesn’t make an athlete. But what it does is it allows players to tap in and get answers to their questions about performance. The great thing about working with top players is that they are making it uncomfortable for you, always questioning you because they want to be absorbing information and I think that’s probably one of the biggest challenges for young players coming through the system. Some don’t ask enough and take that intellectual curiosity. Ronaldo was always interested, not just about the game but outside the game and showing passion in playing the game and wanting to learn. I think that is what sets him apart.
Managers and fans love players who work hard, but did you ever have to tell Ronaldo to ease off?
We had a coach when I first joined Man United, Carlos Quieroz, (current Iran manager),who always encouraged me to make sure that players didn't stay out too long, but obviously Ronaldo wanted to do extra work. I was up to me then to deal with that tension, because what you are doing is your telling a player to come off the training field. They know their bodies, they want to train more and I mean that’s the great thing about the culture and environment we had at Man United - they wanted to train and they wanted to do more. That was the conflict there, because they really wanted to train and we wanted to pull them off the training ground.
One day I was looking out of the window at Carrington and we had an astro turf area that was enclosed that they used to call the cage and Ronaldo was fiddling around with something in the corner. I saw him out there for about twenty minutes, he was passing and doing his skills and he put something down on the astro turf. I went out after and discovered it was ankle weights. So there’s a boy who’s not only getting his training with the group but he’s also going back and doing more and thinking beyond about how he can get stronger. It was specific to what he does because it was about quick feet. There were a number of times when he was a bit unhappy with certain parts of his game, so he worked more on free-kicks and shooting practice. He just had that discipline to practice more and more.
Have you come across anyone like him?
No, but we are very fortunate that he came to Manchester United under Sir Alex and was surrounded by players like Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes, Rio Ferdinand and Wayne Rooney. We had a group of athletes there that wanted to get better. A lot of the players who play in the Premier League, 80 % of them are fantastic professionals and train but very few want to practice and do more. He was a unique individual in the way that he had that discipline to want to do more.
He said that he wants to carry on for another 10 years. Do you think that he can do that?
I think he’s got the mentality to do so. I think physiologically there is no reason to suggest that over the next ten years he can’t. Obviously things change, when Michael Jordan stopped driving up to the hoop, he had to take up a different role, and that might be the case with Ronaldo. Ryan Giggs set the standard playing up to the age that he did. Cristiano will be at least 10 kilograms heavier than Giggs but in terms of professionalism I fully expect him to be able to achieve that. He can adapt and evolve his game for sure both physically and mentally.
Is Ronaldo sport’s greatest athlete?
I think he's had a very, very unique career span. Very few people dominate their sport, whether that's football, basketball, baseball, athletics, whatever sport, but he has done it for so long. To do that it takes relentless pursuit and performance, its takes incredible discipline and it also takes that intelligence of what he needs to perform. I think there are probably a lot of coaches that have been along with him on the journey but he’s the one that’s designed that. He would have collaborated for sure with coaches like Sir Alex and fitness coaches and other technical coaches but you always come up with a plan. So to see what he’s doing now and how he is performing is no surprise to us. He’ll go down as an all-time great.
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