Despite leaving the club before his prime, Cristiano Ronaldo is one of the most well-revered Manchester United players of all time.
His contributions to the club during his six-year stay have placed him among United’s all-time greats, as well as in the hearts of Red Devils fans across the globe.
News of his recent earth-shattering departure from Real Madrid creates the perfect opportunity to reflect and reminisce on his time as a red.
From arriving in Manchester as a bucktooth teenager, to when he won the Ballon d’Or along with countless other trophies during United’s dominant late noughties reign. Let’s take a look back at his first season at Old Trafford:
After rising through the ranks of Sporting Lisbon’s youth system, Cristiano Ronaldo sealed his £12.24million move to Manchester United in the summer of 2003.
The move was a historic one for the club, not only for being the first Portuguese player in United’s history, but for being the most expensive move ever for a teenager in English football.
Cristiano and Sir Alex’s close working relationship had begun ever since the Portuguese walked through the United doors. Initially, Ronaldo had requested to inherit his number 28 jersey which he wore at Sporting. But Fergie declined and offered the teenager United’s prestigious number seven shirt.
This, a token of Fergie’s trust, could well have been a pivotal moment in Cristiano’s progression as a Manchester United player.
It certainly motivated him to perform. And based on his style of play on the field, he definitely did not lack confidence.
Much like most managers in the mid-noughties, Sir Alex seemed hesitant to veer away from the boring setup of 4-4-2.
A front two of Paul Scholes and Ruud van Nistelrooy appeared in most of United’s games during the 2003/04 season. Whilst Roy Keane, the Neville brothers, and John O’Shea completed the side’s core. On the wings, however, was the one-two combination of Ryan Giggs and Cristiano Ronaldo.
Using their pace, both were tasked with bombing down each flank and delivering balls into the box for the two men up front – often to great success.
Cristiano was deployed primarily on the right-wing for United during this season, and would continue to do so for the vast majority of his remaining time at the club.
The juxtaposing styles of Giggsy and Ronaldo out wide became hard for opposing defenders to cope with.
The direct, relatively no-frills style from Giggs on the left compared to the eccentric, showboating style from Cristiano, provided United with much more varied options in attack.
CR7 made his debut during United’s 4-0 win over Bolton at the beginning of the season. Another legendary United number seven, George Best, complimented the teenager’s debut, labelling it as ‘undoubtedly the most exciting’ he had ever seen.
Key Game 1: vs Manchester City (FA Cup)
The Manchester derby may not have meant as much in those days as today. But one victory over their neighbours sent United along the path for their only trophy of the season.
The two sides met in an eventful round-of-16 encounter in which Gary Neville was sent off for headbutting Steve McManaman in the first half.
Just four minutes before, in the 34th-minute, Scholes had opened the scoring for United. But the ten-man side would then struggle until Ruud van Nistelrooy increased their lead via a Cristiano Ronaldo cross.
Ronaldo would then get on the scoresheet himself in the 72nd-minute, before van Nistelrooy would then again find the back of the net, allowing United to progress to the next round.
Cristiano’s creativity would become the spine of United’s play during the game. Van Nistelrooy was a poacher striker that thrived on excellent service, and he certainly had that with Ronaldo.
Key Game 2: vs Millwall (FA Cup Final 2004)
Apart from the signing of Ronaldo himself, the 2003/04 season was one that would be hard to draw positives from. Their only taste of silverware came after a 3-0 win over Championship side Millwall in the final of the FA Cup.
The Red Devils swept aside Dennis Wise’s men with ease, but one player, in particular, stood out for United. Of course, that was Cristiano Ronaldo.
When analysing his performance, the BBC said:
“Ronaldo, often pilloried by critics for over-playing this season, was the game’s outstanding footballer.”
Cristiano opened the scoring in the 44th-minute through a header, proving he also had the physical presence in his game.
Another two goals from Ruud van Nistelrooy secured another FA Cup for Fergie’s men. This taste of success teased the tastebuds of Ronaldo. Lucky for him, plenty more followed.
Once The Dust Settled
The FA Cup was United’s only silverware during the 2003/04 season. The Reds finished third in the league behind Arsenal’s invincibles and tumbled out of the Champions League at the hands of Porto.
A disappointing season all things considered. However, it was not United’s year, despite Ruud van Nistelrooy enjoying quite possibly his best season in a United shirt.
Cristiano finished the season on six goals and nine assists across all competitions. It was far from his most successful campaign at Old Trafford, but it was crucial for Cristiano in helping him mature as a player and get used to English football.
The teenager from rural Portugal had now become a worldwide name, so being able to cope with the spotlight was an area Ronaldo had to learn quickly.
The winger drew criticism from many throughout the season for his ‘pointless’ tricks and showboating. Which was an area of play CR7 would begin to gradually phase out later on in his career.
However, this added flair was something United had sorely missed. Brazil’s dominance at the 2002 World Cup had brought samba-style footy into the new generation – and Cristiano was one of the first to embrace it in England.
In order to evolve from their direct, no-nonsense style of football, United needed to make Cristiano the focal point of their attack. And they would go on to do just that.