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When a contact messaged on Friday morning to say Cristiano Ronaldo’s transfer to Manchester City was ‘gathering pace’, it was impossible not to think of those fleeting deadline day reports in 2008, when Sky Sports News speculated that Tottenham striker Dimitar Berbatov had been ‘kidnapped’ by Sir Alex Ferguson on the Manchester Airport tarmac.
My tweet detailing the Ronaldo information ended with a jocular reference to the ‘abduction’ 13 years earlier. Little did I know that Sir Alex Ferguson, almost eight-and-a-half years into retirement, had intervened again.
A separate contact then messaged at half-eleven that he was ‘starting to hear more’ about a possible United move for Ronaldo. That ship seemed to have sailed years ago and it was difficult to take it seriously. Ronaldo had fluttered his eyelashes at United without them ever recoupling.
But the source’s hit-rate was good. The attraction for United’s owners, the Glazer family, was Ronaldo would be the seismic signing to get supporters back onside amid mounting dissatisfaction with the state of the squad. The Super League treachery also still rankled for fans.
Rio Ferdinand had not long tweeted a meme of a smug-looking Leonardo DiCaprio from Django Unchained. Ferdinand sullied himself earlier this summer by suggesting Raphael Varane was using United to increase his salary at Real Madrid on Twitter and he had revelled in the retweets and likes following a story he could become United’s director of football back in 2019.
It would have been easy to dismiss Ferdinand’s tweet. But Ferdinand was Ronaldo’s teammate for six years and is his friend. They stay in touch. Something was afoot.
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At ten to 12, an agency contact suggested United had got involved. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s press conference was due to start at 1.15pm, so there was plenty of time for a reporter or an outlet to run a well-sourced story on a potential Ronaldo homecoming before it started.
There was radio silence from United. That was telling. At this point, it would have been remiss not to draft a story informed by multiple and credible sources.
It was apparent from watching Solskjaer and listening to him, his enunciation and the pauses where he considered prevaricating in response to questions about Ronaldo, there was something in it.
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Solskjaer became nostalgic about the player and former teammate who posed for a picture with his kids at Cardiff in 2014. Solskjaer jokingly Ronaldo contributed to his serious knee injury in 2003 by, as the chant goes, playing on the left and playing on the right, on his full United debut against Wolves.
Mike McGrath of The Daily Telegraph pinned Solskjaer against the wall with the final question on the call: “With one of the greatest players ever on the market, why would Manchester United not try for a player like that?”
“I didn’t think Cristiano was gonna turn out leaving Juventus,” Solskjaer replied. “And it’s been speculation this morning and the last few days.
“We’ve always had good communication. I know Bruno [Fernandes]’s been talking to him as well and he knows what we feel about him. And if he was ever gonna move away from Juventus he knows we’re here.”
Usually, the desk editor dictates when a story is run. In this instance, it was the 1.30pm embargo for the open section of Solskjaer’s Zoom call. The MEN’s football editor Alice McKeegan ran the story that the Glazer family was giving serious consideration to hijacking City’s intended move for Ronaldo.
Ronaldo savours United’s 2009 title win as Bryan and Edward Glazer watch on Just gone 2pm, another contact who flagged United’s sudden interest in Ronaldo messaged: “Fergie spoke with Ronaldo this morning.” The credibility of the source was compelling enough to write the story.
City, seemingly certain to sign Ronaldo a few hours earlier, then communicated that they had ended their pursuit of him. The truth was that Ronaldo’s interest ended the moment United contacted him.
Shortly before 3pm, a separate source who had not seen the Ferguson story texted: “Ronaldo spoke to Fergie this morning 100%.” This was four minutes after I was informed United had planned a medical for Ronaldo in Lisbon.
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Word of the fee arrived shortly before half-past four from an agency contact privy to negotiations, the figure described as ‘amortised’. Upon being informed of the fee, a separate source clarified it was a two-year contract worth £480,000-a-week and described the Ronaldo deal as ‘done’, with a possible announcement at 6pm.
At 4.51pm, the United Twitter account hit ‘tweet’ and threatened to crash the site. The official United website crashed in the evening.
United have resisted the temptation to trumpet the coup against City specifically, preferring to vaguely refer to Ronaldo’s ‘offers/interest from multiple clubs’. For the supporters who renewed their season tickets, this is something to crow over with a new chant. Their neighbours are now scrambling for a third-choice striker target.
Of the quartet of the MEN’s Ronaldo stories, the Ferguson one is the most emotionally charged. Time will tell if his approach is as pivotal as when he took that motorbike ride through the streets of Paris to persuade Eric Cantona not to walk out on United in 1995, or when he convinced Ronaldo to stay in 2006. On each occasion, United lifted the Premier League trophy the following year.
Ronaldo’s father, Jose Dinis Aveiro, died in 2005 and Ferguson has been a surrogate father for Ronaldo ever since. That warmth has continued beyond Ferguson developing him into the greatest footballer there has ever been. On the day Ferguson’s retirement was announced, Ronaldo tweeted: “Thanks for everything, Boss.” It was accompanied by a picture of Ferguson’s fatherly stance next to an 18-year-old Ronaldo at his United unveiling.
Ronaldo embraced Ferguson after the 2014 European Super Cup in Cardiff and Ferguson made a beeline for him as Ronaldo descended the steps of the Stade de France, clutching a Portugal flag and his winners’ medal resting on his neck. Ferguson attended Ronaldo’s film premiere in London in 2015 and, for a man who brazenly despised agents, described Jorge Mendes as ‘the best’.
Five months after he suffered a brain haemorrhage, Ferguson ventured to the Crowne Plaza Hotel, where Juventus were staying ahead of their Champions League group stage tie with United in October 2018, to reunite with Ronaldo.
“A great coach and above all a wonderful man,” Ronaldo tweeted. “Taught me so many things inside and outside the pitch. Great to see you in good shape, Boss!”
Ronaldo is one of a handful of players Ferguson would drop anything for. For United, it is just as well he did.