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12th Aug 2015

Young Ronaldo: The spaghetti-haired waif who brought Old Trafford to its feet

Nooruddean Choudry

On August 12, 2003, Manchester United signed an 18-year-old winger from Sporting Lisbon called Cristiano Ronaldo for £12.24m.

Four days later, United hosted Bolton Wanderers on the opening day of the 2003/04 season. On paper it was a tough start against a talented side containing the likes of Jay-Jay Okocha, Ivan Campo and Youri Djorkaeff.

At the hour mark, with the home side holding a slender 1-0 lead courtesy of a Ryan Giggs free-kick, Sir Alex Ferguson beckoned his new teenage recruit from the bench. Unfazed and almost languid in his manner, the youngster readied himself.

As young Cristiano tagged on for Nicky Butt, and became the first Portuguese to represent United in the process, Old Trafford applauded warmly. They were excited about this one. A week or so earlier he had tied the United defend in knots during a friendly in Lisbon. So much so that it expedited his signing.

He was a tall boy, but slender too. Fading scars of pubescent acne and his oversized jersey gave him the look of a lanky sixth-former. Although the most noticeable aspect of his appearance was his hair; it was long and slicked back, barring a few shocking blonde strands falling over his face. Like spaghetti escaping from a colander.

He was eager to impress from the start. Hugging the left touchline, his first touch was rapidly followed by two more as he immediately sought to beat his man. But right-back Nicky Hunt was having none of it and quickly dispossessed the new charge with a hard but fair challenge. The resulting Bolton attack very nearly led to an equaliser.

Still that was fine. It was quickly apparent that the youngster had the type of bravery that Ferguson adored: never hiding, always getting up and trying again. It was noticeable too that Roy Keane and Paul Scholes were looking to find that lad whenever possible. The crowd were equally generous and encouraged him at every opportunity.

Not that the young Portuguese lacked confidence. In fact he was beginning to enjoy himself. With white tape around his ankles, his dainty quick-step resembled that of an energetic foal, skipping around the field with wild abandon. There was no muscle mass to him, only elastic limbs and plasticine hips.

It wasn’t long before Bolton manager Sam Allardyce identified the callow substitute as a real threat to his hopes of a point. And so barely five minutes into his Manchester United career, Ronaldo was being marked by two men instead of one. Not that it seemed to incumber him in the slightest.

A dangerous run into the Wanderers’ penalty area almost resulted in a chance, but he lost his footing at the vital moment. Then a few seconds later, he was played into the box by Keane and desperately pulled down by a beaten Kevin Nolan – the referee immediately pointed to the spot.

Although Ruud van Nistelrooy failed to convert the resulting penalty, another scintillating raid down the left wing soon followed and led to a United second, with Giggs again netting from a rebounded effort. The assist didn’t technically belong to Ronaldo but he was the undeniable catalyst.

Suddenly, passes were aimed in the teenager’s direction not out of good will but due to his clear threat. His tippy-toe running style was vaguely reminiscent of Andrei Kanchelskis in his thrilling pomp. If he turned out to be half the player the Russian was, United supporters would be very happy indeed.

The dancing winger began to wander across the pitch, drifting into central positions to pick up the ball. His every touch was now greeted with genuine delight amongst the congregated Reds as they cheered in preemptive anticipation. He was beginning to run the show on his first-team debut.

It wasn’t long before the ground was singing his name. Some players wait for years before they have a song of their own; Cristiano was gifted one in minutes. It was a simple but witty chant of ‘There’s only one Ronaldo’, a tongue-in-cheek reference to the youngster’s Brazilian namesake – only the world’s greatest striker.

Much to the dismay of makeshift wingback Ricardo Gardner, the cocky Portuguese decided to set up shop on the right flank for the remaining ten minutes or so. Frighteningly, he was genuinely two-footed and every bit as skilful with his right peg as his left. He set up another gilt-edged chance that Van Nistelrooy should have buried.

At this late stage in the game, with the points in the bag and Bolton players tiring, Ronaldo was running amok. He was jinxing past players with hoppity ease. Without necessarily showboating, the youngster was taking the p*ss – at least that’s how the Bolton lads seems to take it.

Their method of combating the young Iberian’s skills became a little more robust, and Ronaldo was hacked down with meaty relish. Seasoned pros such as ex-Madridista Ivan Campo and Dane Per Frandsen didn’t appreciate being given the runaround by this precocious upstart.

Neither did the exhausted and embarrassed Gardner. The Jamaican was struggling to maintain his dignity in the face of Ronaldo’s trickery, and by the dying moments of game he’d had enough. As the ball found its way to teenager yet again, the Bolton man scythed through him with vengeful force.

It did not break Manchester’s new hero. He pulled up his socks and leapt to his feet. Phil Neville trotted over to take the resulting set-piece…and then quickly trotted away again as the new kid to politely requested he jog on. It seemed the youngster could take free-kicks too, which would no doubt come in handy.

At the final whistle, the score read 4-0. Ronaldo was not amongst the scorers but no one seemed to care. They had just witnessed the finest debut performance in recent memory. After only half an hour on the pitch, the spaghetti-haired waif had convinced everyone present that he was a very special prospect indeed.

Paddy Crerand, a United legend who now co-commentated for the club’s in-house MUTV channel, was gushing even by his rose-tinted standards. “Is he going to be the new number one who’ll take over from everybody else?” he asked, somewhat prematurely.

Judging by the reactions of those in the stands – and on the bench – there was no limit to what this sensational young talent could eventually become. And the rest, of course, is history…