Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s Manchester United can feel a one-man nostalgia project. Short of supplanting Solskjær himself to bring Sir Alex Ferguson back to the dugout, there are few better ways of taking United back to yesteryear than by re-signing the last of their great No 7s.
Without returning the Premier League or the Champions League trophies to Old Trafford, Solskjær could at least allow it to echo to the sound of “Viva Ronaldo”, a chorus that was a celebration of superiority, again. Whether or not Cristiano Ronaldo represents the recruit United need, he has an irresistible appeal to Solskjær, United’s happy romantic. “He is a legend of this club, he’s the greatest player of all time,” he said.
The scorer in the 2008 Champions League final and the man who got the winning goal in 1999 are flagship signing and manager respectively; symbols of United twinned in the aim of restoring past glories. Old Trafford’s 21st-century George Best, who also debuted as a teenager and went on to win the European Cup and the Ballon d’Or, Ronaldo’s return is the most dramatic comeback for United since Paul Scholes’ sudden emergence from retirement. Given Manchester City’s interest in Ronaldo, even if it was less fervent than United’s, it may seem the sort of surprise and coup Ferguson conjured in hiring Eric Cantona. United will find validation in the sense he chose them.
Ronaldo and United may have been the mutual attraction that never died. “He knows what we feel about him and if he was ever going to move away from Juventus, he knows that we are here,” the Norwegian once said. That has been underlined. “Our bond survived our parting,” Ferguson wrote in his autobiography. The same may be said of Ronaldo’s relationship with club and supporters alike. The United faithful often afford generous receptions to fine servants but the standing ovation Ronaldo was granted on his first return, with Real Madrid in 2013, was an outpouring of love.
He was the catalyst in Ferguson’s third great team and, arguably, for United’s relapse. Perhaps they entered decline the moment he left in 2009. They won two more Premier League titles and reached a further Champions League final, but each could be attributed to Ferguson’s force of personality. Some of the excitement and the swagger departed with Ronaldo.
“The most gifted player I managed,” Ferguson subsequently said. “He surpassed all the other great ones I coached.” No wonder United became more prosaic without Ronaldo. Arguably, a dozen years later, they never truly replaced him; not in the team or their identity. Maybe Jadon Sancho will become the first world-class winger to man the right flank since Ronaldo left, now the Portuguese has been reinvented as static penalty-box presence. In another respect, the belated new Ronaldo may be the old Ronaldo.
And, undeniably, he is an old Ronaldo. He and Solskjær were teammates for four years. Their paths crossed for six minutes on the Portuguese’s debut in 2003. The showman captivated Old Trafford – “Ronaldo had the greatest impact on Manchester United fans of any player since Cantona,” Ferguson later wrote – and they have remained under his spell. But it was half a lifetime ago for Ronaldo: then 18, he is now 36. One of his opponents that day, Youri Djorkaeff, is 53 now. His captain, Roy Keane, has brought up his own half-century. His teammates are now the pundits, the manager, the first-team coach, Michael Carrick, and the technical director, Darren Fletcher; not the goalkeepers, defenders, midfielders and forwards.
He arrived as the teenager with the most flicks and tricks and returns as the veteran with more goals than anyone else in the history of professional football: only five of those 783 came before he joined United. “The transformation from the wee show-off,” as Ferguson put it, saw three years of potential followed by three of performance, a blur of stepovers replaced by a flurry of goals when he acquired a ruthless mentality. There were 91 in his final three seasons, which felt extraordinary until he delivered 450 in nine years for Real.
Ferguson was richly rewarded for exiling Ruud van Nistelrooy to build a team around Ronaldo. Fifteen years later, his second coming could cost Mason Greenwood, Anthony Martial and Edinson Cavani. Perhaps the Uruguayan will be sidelined, the role of the veteran with the big-match temperament suddenly hijacked. Maybe Martial’s wretched 2020-21 will see him jettisoned. The precocious Greenwood could be United’s long-term centre-forward, but the future may be postponed because of the past. But Solskjær is proof United find their past seductive.