A Manchester United fan and her friend once waited patiently outside Carrington in late 2003. It was Cristiano Ronaldo’s first season at the club and he was about to return to Madeira for a brief winter break.

Ronaldo pulled out of the training complex and noticed the two girls politely signalling him to stop. Ronaldo gently applied the brakes on his BMW X5 and pressed his window switch.

One of the girls was not a football follower but requested Ronaldo’s autograph on a shirt as a birthday present for her father. The other was a United supporter and asked Ronaldo if he could personalise his autograph.

“What’s your name?” Ronaldo asked.

“Alice,” she replied.

“A-L-I-C-E?” Ronaldo, pen in hand, clarified.


Ronaldo carefully wrote the girl’s name, scrawled ‘Ronaldo 7’ and posed for a photograph with her before speeding off. The girl admired her newly-signed shirt and then her face dropped. Ronaldo had written ‘To Alex’. At least he tried…

Ronaldo was just as considerate when Michael Carrick approached him at the Super Cup in Skopje back in 2017 for a signed shirt for his son, Jacey. Ronaldo misspelled Jacey, too.

Ronaldo, circa late 2003
Ronaldo, circa late 2003

For the best part of two decades, United supporters from different generations have been in awe of Ronaldo. For a United-supporting boy or girl who was born in the year he left the club, they have the privilege of watching Ronaldo in M16 – and he will not be guided to the away dressing room. Season tickets were already sold out in July and demand at the ticket office is certain to intensify.

Perhaps the queues outside the Megastore will snake round to the ticket office adjacent to the Sir Alex Ferguson Stand. Ferguson’s statue was erected there after Ronaldo departed but on its unveiling day in 2012, Ronaldo elicited the loudest cheer with a video message that was played to the crowd.

Eric Cantona, Ruud van Nistelrooy and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer were among the great and the good invited to the ceremony. Ronaldo had only been gone three years but Ferguson could have whipped the cloth off the bronze this year and an absent Ronaldo would have still had the rock-star appeal.

Like Cantona, David Beckham and Roy Keane, Ronaldo was a player who intensified the siege mentality at United. The lyrics to ‘That boy Ronaldo’ were tweaked to ‘makes England look s—e’ after the 2006 World Cup fallout. United fans were swaying to the left and right at Wolves two weeks ago.

On the two occasions Ronaldo returned to Old Trafford he beat his heart as he faced the Stretford End at full-time. In the bianconeri of Juventus, it was to the soundtrack of ‘Viva Ronaldo’.

The stadium announcer, Alan Keegan, deliberately left Ronaldo’s name until last as he went through the Real Madrid starters for his 2013 homecoming. Ronaldo was visibly overwhelmed. He still scored the winner.

The last time, with Juventus, Ronaldo attended the pre-match press conference in Old Trafford’s No.7 Suite, a shrine to him and other luminaries who donned the number.

The red-shirted image of Ronaldo by the bar, pronounced against a black and white background, is of him celebrating his last United goal in a derby triumph. Beside it reads the Ryan Giggs quote: “When Ronaldo gets the ball, you can just leave him to it while he beats player after player.”

Walk down the corridor outside the suite and there are doors marked ‘Boardroom’ and ‘Old Boardroom’. The old and new guard at United must be beside themselves to be welcoming back the greatest player in United’s modern history.

Ronaldo thanks United fans in 2018
Ronaldo thanks United fans in 2018

Ronaldo’s entrance sparked more camera clicks than an A-list film star on Hollywood Boulevard. He was fashionably late and the only thing more blinding than the photographers’ light bulbs was the diamond-encrusted watch he wore. The flash function will be widely used on matchday.

It is a pity the United team coach will lurch as close as possible towards the Stretford End entrance on Saturday. Most of the supporters assembled will barely glimpse Ronaldo disembarking the coach. Yesteryear, the players parked up and strode towards the tunnel individually, not even flanked by security. Ronaldo could never do that.

His Instagram reintroduction to the supporters who were chanting his name at Wolves ended with, “PS – Sir Alex, this one is for you…” As sign-offs go, it had the most hard-nosed, cynical supporter weak at the knees. The old RedIssue editor, Zar, tweeted: “Talk about saying the right thing, tremendous from Ronaldo.”

It was not always plain sailing. Ronaldo attempted to engineer a transfer to Madrid in 2008 and crassly described himself as a ‘slave’. At a United reserves pre-season match against Burscough, a banner read, ‘RONALDO SLAVE OUT!’ When Ronaldo appeared on the screens at Wembley during the Community Shield a month later and the RedIssue editorial described Ronaldo as a ‘conniving little s–t’.

Yet United fans have serenaded Ronaldo ever since he left. The sight of away-dayers twirling their red, white and black bar scarves in the Steve Bull Stand last month evoked memories of the Champions League final in Moscow. Those scarves, gifted to supporters to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Munich air disaster, are just as synonymous with Ronaldo. The Muscovites approved of the sight of clenched fists clutching red emblems in the Luzhniki Stadium.

A United fan twirls his bar scarf in the Luzhniki Stadium
A United fan twirls his bar scarf in the Luzhniki Stadium

Ronaldo is back for the biggest challenge of his career. United and Juventus were champions when he touched down in Manchester and Turin 15 years apart. Madrid had won La Liga the year before Ronaldo played keepie-uppie in front of the Bernabeu. This United is success-starved, without a title in more than eight years and trophyless since 2017.

But the sight of Ronaldo is one of reassurance. He is looking down on United supporters who stroll down Sir Matt Busby Way again, his image affixed to the east stand facade for the first time since 2008.

He has been enlarged on it twice before. The last time was at the start of 2007-08 season, Ronaldo assembled for a squad picture on its turquoise glass panels. The statement read: “The mission continues.”