‘There have been a few players described as “the new George Best” over the years… but this is the first time it’s been a compliment to me’ – George Best
It isn’t very often a footballer requires just a few touches to convince everyone watching they’re a unique talent.
But that’s precisely what 18-year-old Cristiano Ronaldo did on his Manchester United debut back in 2003.
Nobody who watched his half-hour cameo against Bolton Wanderers at Old Trafford that August afternoon was left in any doubt – this kid was very special indeed.
Cristiano Ronaldo in action on his Manchester United debut, a 30-minute cameo from the bench against Bolton on the opening day of the 2003-04 Premiership season
The £12.4million buy, just 18, wowed the Old Trafford crowd – and Bolton full-back Nicky Hunt (right) – with a dizzying array of tricks and stepovers, having just arrived from Sporting Lisbon
Sporting blonde highlights in his hair, nonchalantly chewing gum and with silver Nikes on his twinkle toes, the teenager flicked and tricked his way immediately into the affections of United fans.
Nobody could have accurately foreseen just how much the Portuguese star would go on to achieve but plenty (perhaps with the benefit of hindsight) have claimed there were plenty of clues in the swaggering manner he took to the Old Trafford stage.
Now, at the age of 36, Ronaldo returns after joining from Juventus and could begin his second spell at United this Saturday when they entertain Newcastle. United can only hope the magic remains as strong.
Eighteen years ago, Sir Alex Ferguson’s team were the reigning Premiership champions but it had been far from a smooth summer with David Beckham departing for Real Madrid and flop Juan Sebastian Veron sold to Chelsea.
Ahead of the Bolton game, there was as much buzz about Brazilian World Cup winning midfielder Kleberson, bought from Atletico Paranaense for £5.9m and paraded to the crowd ahead of kick-off, than Ronaldo.
18 years after that sensational debut (left), Ronaldo is back in the colours of United (minus the blond highlights in his hair) after completing a sensational move from Juventus
United moved quickly to beat rivals Arsenal and Liverpool to Ronaldo’s signature after he impressed playing against them for Sporting Lisbon in a pre-season friendly
Man United transfers in summer 2003
Cristiano Ronaldo (Sporting Lisbon, £12.4m)
David Bellion (Sunderland, £2m)
Eric Djemba-Djemba (Nantes, £3.5m)
Tim Howard (Metrostars, £2.3m)
Kleberson (Atletico Paranaense, £5.9m)
David Beckham (Real Madrid, £17.25m)
Juan Sebastian Veron (Chelsea, £15m)
But Ferguson knew a talent when he saw one and, apparently, so did his players, who persuaded their boss to sign the teenager there and then after he’d torn them to shreds in a pre-season friendly defeat by Sporting Lisbon a few weeks earlier.
As captain Roy Keane recounted in his autobiography: ‘We were playing Sporting Lisbon pre-season, to celebrate the opening of their new stadium, and I saw how good Ronaldo was that day.
‘He was playing for Sporting and he was up against John O’Shea. Sheasy ended up seeing the club doctor at half-time because he was having dizzy spells; he was being twisted inside-out.
‘The club had been watching Ronaldo and I think they concluded negotiations after the game. We always joked that Sheasy sealed the deal because he played like a f***ing clown against him.’
Ferguson, who’d been tipped off about Ronaldo’s abundant talent by his Portuguese assistant manager Carlos Queiroz, described watching him that night as ‘the biggest surge of excitement, of anticipation, I experienced in football management’.
United pounced to buy Ronaldo for £12.4million, the most expensive teenager in world football at that time, and there was the added satisfaction of beating rivals Arsenal and Liverpool to sign him.
Sir Alex Ferguson welcomes Ronaldo and Brazilian midfielder Kleberson to the club in 2003
Kleberson was introduced to the crowd at Old Trafford ahead of the match against Bolton
A fan arrives at Old Trafford for the Bolton game with ‘Ronaldo 7’ on the back of his shirt – Ronaldo succeeded David Beckham as wearer of the No 7
Arsene Wenger was furious with Ronaldo’s agent Jorge Mendes when the Gunners lost out to United with an £8m fee already agreed and assurances made he could have his favoured No 28 shirt.
But United didn’t hesitate in handing the new boy the No 7 shirt vacated by Beckham. The significance of following on from Best and Eric Cantona wasn’t lost on anyone at the club but Ronaldo was certainly up to the challenge.
On the opening day against Bolton, United led on the hour mark thanks to a Ryan Giggs free-kick but were struggling to kill off Sam Allardyce’s battling side.
It was far from a vintage United team. In fact, it could be described as pretty makeshift with Quinton Fortune at left-back and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer playing in midfield alongside the likes of Keane, Paul Scholes, Rio Ferdinand and Ruud van Nistelrooy.
There were a few murmurs of discontent among the 67,000-strong crowd as United searched for a second goal but that quickly dissipated once Ronaldo was introduced for Nicky Butt on 61 minutes.
Ronaldo replaces Nicky Butt with half-an-hour left as United look to kill off the contest
Ryan Giggs side-foots home his and United’s second goal to effectively seal the three points
One of his first touches was a Cruyff turn that took him away from two white shirted opponents before he began to run Bolton right-back Nicky Hunt ragged.
Keane and Scholes did their best to get Ronaldo involved at every opportunity and he kept bouncing to his feet despite some cynical challenges.
‘The right-back [Hunt] rattled him straight away in the centre of the park, took the ball off him, but Cristiano got straight back up and demanded another pass right away,’ Ferguson recalled.
‘”He’s got balls, anyway,” I thought.’
As the Old Trafford crowd gasped and lapped up the sudden entertainment in what had been a dull contest, Ronaldo won a penalty when Kevin Nolan tugged his shirt, but Van Nistelrooy was denied by Jussi Jaaskelainen.
Paul Scholes scored United’s third goal as they coasted in the closing stages of the game
Ruud van Nistelrooy, who’d earlier seen a penalty saved, hammers home United’s fourth goal
Ronaldo takes the acclaim of the crowd at the final whistle after impressing on his debut
MAN UNITED 4-0 BOLTON
FA Premiership; August 16, 2003
Manchester United: Tim Howard; Phil Neville, Quinton Fortune, Rio Ferdinand, Mikael Silvestre; Ole Gunnar Solskjaer (Eric Djemba-Djemba 67), Roy Keane, Nicky Butt (Cristiano Ronaldo 61), Ryan Giggs (Diego Forlan 80); Paul Scholes; Ruud van Nistelrooy
Substitutes not used: Roy Carroll (GK); John O’Shea
Manager: Sir Alex Ferguson
Scorers: Giggs 35, 73; Scholes 77; Van Nistelrooy 86
Bolton Wanderers: Jussi Jaaskelainen; Nicky Hunt, Florent Laville, Bruno N’Gotty, Ricardo Gardner, Stelios Giannakopoulos (Delroy Facey 76), Jay-Jay Okocha, Ivan Campo, Kevin Nolan (Per Frandsen 72), Henrik Pedersen (Youri Djorkaeff 59), Kevin Davies
Substitutes not used: Kevin Poole, Anthony Barness
Manager: Sam Allardyce
Booked: N’Gotty, Giannakopoulos, Nolan, Gardner
Referee: Paul Durkin (Dorset)
Watching the footage back, it is very obvious that Ronaldo was still a raw talent. Quite a few touches are loose with that element and other attributes coming later as a result of endless devotion to his craft.
By his own volition, Ronaldo switched from left flank to right and further goals from Giggs, Scholes and Van Nistelrooy late on gave the scoreline a one-sided appearance.
‘There’s only one Ronaldo,’ chanted the home fans at the final whistle; the same audience that had given his Brazilian namesake a standing ovation after a hat-trick there for Real Madrid a few months previous.
‘It was a marvellous debut, almost unbelievable,’ purred Ferguson at the end.
‘It looks like the United fans have a new hero.’
He later reflected in his second autobiography: ‘The Bolton defenders were in knots and the crowd responded as though a Messiah had materialised in front of their very eyes.
‘He had the biggest impact on Manchester United fans of a player since Eric Cantona.’
But some of the most fulsome praise came from United legend Best. ‘It was undoubtedly the most exciting debut performance I’ve ever seen,’ he said a short time later.
‘A few of my old team-mates were at the game and they compared him to me.
‘There have been a few players described as “the new George Best” over the years, but this is the first time it’s been a compliment to me!
‘£12.4m seems a high price for an 18-year-old, but I think it’s a snip. You are talking about a lad who, if he stays injury-free, has 15 years ahead of him in the game.
‘He’s special, I could see that immediately. In the next few months, thousands of kids will be wearing “Ronaldo 7” shirts and asking their parents to get their hair tinted like him.’
Best was absolutely spot on – apart from underestimating the longevity of his career by who knows how many years. Fast forward to the present and a new generation of kids will be wanting United shirts with ‘Ronaldo 7’ on the back.
What happened next?
It would be a disappointing season for United, who couldn’t keep pace with Arsenal’s Invincibles at the top of the Premiership table and surrendered their crown.
Chelsea, who’d just been taken over by Roman Abramovich, pipped them into second spot as well. In the end, United came 15 points behind the Gunners.
They also suffered a disappointing exit to Jose Mourinho’s Porto in the last-16 of the Champions League but some consolation arrived in the form of a FA Cup win, with Millwall beaten 3-0 in the final at Cardiff.
As for Ronaldo, he would feature plenty, scoring six goals in 40 outings across all competitions – including a header in the FA Cup final. But it would just be the start of a stellar career at Old Trafford.
Ronaldo scored his first goal for United in November 2003 against Portsmouth