The start of the 2003/04 season was an era-shifting occasion for Manchester United. David Beckham had gone in the summer and while a teenage winger with the same penchant for snazzy haircuts had come in, nobody really knew what to expect.
By the time the final whistle had sounded on the opening day of the season at Old Trafford, nobody was talking about Beckham.
Cristiano Ronaldo started on the bench against Bolton Wanderers and only came on for the final half an hour, but in that time United scored three and the 18-year-old winger had stolen the show, a blur of direct running, step overs and tricks and flicks.
On Saturday, 6,602 days after he first stepped on the pitch for United, Ronaldo will be back. The slightly built, dazzling but unpredictable winger has turned into a 36-year-old with the surest finishing touch in the world and a physique that a steel statue couldn’t do justice to. The player has changed, but on Saturday, August 16, 2003, Ronaldo introduced himself to United fans as a player who wrote his own scripts.
After United had beaten Bolton 4-0 back in 2003 Ronaldo dominated the headlines, but Sam Allardyce was in the opposite dugout that day and even before kick-off he’d been warned what to expect from Sir Alex Ferguson.
“I’d had a cup of tea with Sir Alex before the game in his office and he said, ‘this lad, he’s good’,” Allardyce told Sky Sports News this week.
“I felt sorry for Nicky when he came off. (Ronaldo) came on and just dazzled. I said to Sir Alex, ‘you look like you’ve got a real player there for Manchester United’.
“It’s how quickly he developed – I think that wasn’t just the management style but also the players that were at United moulded Ronaldo, stopped him doing all those stepovers every time and started to teach him when and where to do it.”
As the crowds filed out of Old Trafford after the game ‘this lad, he’s good’ was the gist of the conversations happening all around M16. Ferguson was certainly impressed and it’s fitting that he will be in the stands to watch the second coming of Ronaldo this weekend, the fiery Scot and the individualistic teenager from Madeira with blond highlights and an earring forming an unlikely but unbreakable bond.
“It was a marvellous debut,” Ferguson said in 2003. “I thought the pace was too slow in the first half and I knew Cristiano would add penetration.”
He made a habit of that during his time at United. There were 118 goals before the move to Real Madrid and now the unexpected chance to add more. It would hardly be a surprise if goal number 119 arrived on Saturday given his sense of occasion.
The goals flow more freely now as well. Ronaldo left United as a winger who would give full-backs a week of sleepless nights before he faced them and often leave them with twisted blood and a headache, now he’s a fearsome centre forward with a lethal shot and a prodigious leap.
Nicky Hunt was the Bolton Wanderers right-back the day version 1.0 of Ronaldo made his debut at Old Trafford. He’d probably have rather faced this incarnation, where the threat is to stop the service to him rather than to keep an eye on those mesmeric feet.
It was Hunt’s Premier League debut as well that day and it wasn’t one he was going to forget in a hurry.
“We all sat in the changing room after the game and I remember Phil Brown looking at me as if to say you’ve done well, great debut, and he just smiled,” Hunt told the Manchester Evening News in June.
“I looked at him and he raised his eyebrow as if to say: ‘there’s a real player in that other dressing room there, everyone’s seen it today.’
“I think we were surprised at just how exciting he was, his little tricks and flicks but he would get at you. What wingers don’t do now is they don’t run at you, they don’t want to get crosses in anymore.
“No one really knew anything about him did they? He signed as a young kid from Sporting Lisbon and we certainly didn’t know anything about him.
“We just knew that he could be starting his first game and if he did then it would be on my side so I was looking forward to the game, I love playing football, and instead of him I had Giggs on my side for 60 minutes and Ronaldo for 30.
“I don’t think it could have got any worse for me that day!”
It’s a story Hunt is familiar with telling. On Saturday it will be Newcastle’s central defenders who will probably have to deal with Ronaldo. Don’t bet against them having similar tales to tell in years to come.