20 Years On: The Day Cristiano Ronaldo Announced Himself As Football's Next Star

The Portuguese legend debuted for Man Utd on August 16, 2003
07:00, 16 Aug 2023

“We’ve been talking about him all week, Steve,” said Manchester United legend and MUTV co-commentator Paddy Crerand. Little did he or his TV partner Steve Bower realise how much the world would be talking about Cristiano Ronaldo for the next two decades as the 18-year-old first stepped onto the field for his Red Devils debut on August 16, 2003.

Just half an hour later, it was already clear what kind of a talent United had got their hands on. Having led the Bolton Wanderers defence on a merry dance, the young Ronaldo had helped pad out a 1-0 lead into a decisive 4-0 Old Trafford victory. The CR7 story had its first incredible chapter.

Sure, he had made something of a name for himself at Sporting CP in Lisbon, but not even United’s players had really known anything about him until he outplayed them in a pre-season friendly match the previous week. In that showing in Portugal he constantly had the United back-line backpedalling with his desire to run at players, his mesmeric step-overs and the way he was able to manipulate a ball when shooting from distance.


So much damage did he do in that 3-1 Sporting victory that United’s players had only one message for Sir Alex Ferguson after the match. “Sign this kid, gaffer,” Gary Neville says he told the legendary manager post-game, and there were others petitioning for Fergie to bring him on board. Within seven days it was Bolton copping the raw end of Ronaldo’s first United performance following his £12.24 million move.

What he went on to do at United is the stuff of legend, even more so his exploits with Real Madrid between 2009 and 2018, during which time he bagged 450 goals in just 438 matches wearing the famous Blancos strip. Another stint at Old Trafford following his move from Juventus really didn’t work out, but his goalscoring exploits still gave detractors some food for thought.

Yet not even the low-profile departure from United to Al Nassr in December 2022 could take away any of the gloss from his first spell in Manchester. It was in the north-west of England that he was truly nurtured as a top-class footballer and worldwide star. It was there that Sir Alex Ferguson helped to build him up for superstardom. That Bolton performance was stunning, but it was only a glimpse of what he would achieve in United colours.

By the time he left the club for Real Madrid for £80m six years later, he was already a footballing behemoth. His 42 goals in 49 games in 2007-08 as United achieved the double of Premier League and Champions League had been a sure-fire sign of what he was going to do at the top of the game for another decade, so much so Sir Alex asked him to stay on another year rather than leave for Madrid immediately. Another league title and a further Champions League final appearance followed before Fergie stuck to his word and unleashed Ronaldo on La Liga.

There has never been another debut like it, certainly not in the Premier League. Yes, Fabrizio Ravanelli netted a hat-trick the first time he donned a Middlesbrough shirt, but Ronaldo’s was a first impression that was destined to well and truly last.

You’ll be seeing video clips of Ronaldo twisting the blood of Nicky Hunt, Kevin Nolan and Ricardo Gardner for many more anniversaries to come. Everyone loves to be able to say they remember one of the greats making their big splash on the top stage, and this was one of the biggest of the lot.

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