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second coming Cristiano Ronaldo’s love for United built on work, humour and being loved in the dressing-room


Cristiano Ronaldo (C) of Manchester United celebrates after scoring a penalty with team-mates Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs during a game between Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester United at White Hart Lane on February 4, 2007. Credit: Getty Images

Cristiano Ronaldo (C) of Manchester United celebrates after scoring a penalty with team-mates Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs during a game between Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester United at White Hart Lane on February 4, 2007. Credit: Getty Images




Cristiano Ronaldo (C) of Manchester United celebrates after scoring a penalty with team-mates Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs during a game between Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester United at White Hart Lane on February 4, 2007. Credit: Getty Images

“So let me tell you something”. Mick Clegg has spent the past half an hour talking about Cristiano Ronaldo when another memory suddenly springs to mind and the man who helped to shape the physique of arguably the world’s greatest footballer is off again, barely pausing for breath.

Cristiano and Rio Ferdinand used to come in the gym together and it got to a point where they’d be doing weights and different exercises while playing with a football,” recalls Clegg, Manchester United’s former power development coach.

“They’d be doing bicep curls with dumbbells, for example, and heading the ball back at the same time. They were talking, training and playing with the ball as I’m shouting out all sorts of instructions. You haven’t seen multi-tasking like it. People would come to do a bit of training just to watch the two of them going at it. It was like the best circus ever.

“Now if you can’t get energised off that there’s something wrong with you. In a way, I think Rio suffered when Cristiano went because they were both such good people in the gym and really bounced off each other.”

Twelve years after Ronaldo’s departure for Real Madrid, Ferdinand would play an important role alongside Alex Ferguson in bringing the Portugal forward back to United and, against Newcastle at Old Trafford today, the footballing world will get the first glimpse of the player’s second coming at the club where his ascent to greatness took flight.

Perhaps the biggest compliment you could pay Ronaldo about the scale of the impact he made over that six-year period up to his exit for a then world-record £80 million fee in 2009 was the void he left, not just on the pitch but off it given the relationships he fostered.

“That was certainly the case with me,” Clegg says. “After that first year he’d gone you recognised there was a hole there. He’s a one-off. It’s difficult to find someone who is going to be better.”

It may fit the narrative of the returning hero but Ronaldo, for all his long-held desire to play in Madrid, always maintained a deep affection for United and what the club represented and, in many ways, this is the story of how an unbreakable bond was forged.

Even now, the tales behind Ronaldo’s unflinching commitment to become the planet’s best player and his sheer mental toughness take some digesting, but his standing in the dressing-room was not rooted solely in his ability but his sharp sense of humour and willingness to send himself up.

As Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s squad are probably discovering now, Ronaldo is an excellent mimic. “You all right mate,” he would say, playfully adopting a thick Mancunian accent. Phil Neville had a distinctive, slow, up and down walk, not quite knock-kneed but not far off, and Ronaldo would have team-mates in stitches by gleefully imitating the former defender. In turn, Ronaldo was hammered for his garish dress sense.

Nonetheless, he remained blissfully unafraid to preen in front of the mirror he effectively took over from David Beckham, whose No 7 shirt he also inherited, and was sometimes even spotted winking at himself.

Rene Meulensteen, United’s former first team coach, tells a good story from the start of Ronaldo’s final season after Ferguson had managed to persuade the player to give him another year before he could leave. “A lot of players would have thrown their toys out of the pram and sulked but not Cristiano. He just got on with it,” Meulensteen recalls.

“But players take the mickey, don’t they? So Ronaldo comes out on the grass, it’s clear by that point he’s staying another season and Paul Scholes pipes up. ‘Well, Cristiano, you can wear a white bib in every training session now if you want?’. That went down a scream. Cristiano was laughing himself.”

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Ronaldo had learned from very early on that he had the unwavering support of the dressing-room, a feeling only reinforced in the aftermath of the 2006 World Cup when he was accused of helping to get his United team-mate and friend, Wayne Rooney, sent off during England’s quarter-final defeat to Portugal, but returned to Old Trafford to find a dressing-room that revelled in teasing the pair. One player even brought some boxing gloves to training.

He had only been at the club a few weeks after signing from Sporting Lisbon when he got caught in the crossfire of that infamous 0-0 draw against Arsenal, best remembered for Martin Keown haranguing Ruud van Nistelrooy after the striker missed a penalty.

Ronaldo and Ryan Giggs would both be fined at an FA hearing a few months later but the latter took great exception to the governing body’s treatment of United’s new signing and told them as much.

“He could hardly speak any English and it was ridiculous how the FA were speaking to him,” Giggs explained. “I remember telling them it was a joke how they were treating a young lad who had just come to the country. I think things like that helped him. He knew we had his back. He knew we were going to look after him.”

Giggs, of course, knew all about the pressures that come with being Old Trafford’s boy wonder and would, according to Clegg, eventually become the “yardstick” against which Ronaldo set out his stall at United. “Cristiano said to me, ‘I know Ryan Giggs is the hardest working player here, I want to be better than him’,” Clegg said.

In time, even Giggs found his breath being taken away by Ferguson’s latest prodigy, perhaps never more so than at the Estadio do Dragao in April 2009, when Ronaldo pummelled an extraordinary 40-yard drive into the Porto net.

“The one moment I will never, ever forget is that goal,” Giggs said. “Half way towards goal the ball just gathered speed. ‘Oh my God, what have I just seen.’ For a moment, it was like you were a fan.”

There was a time, certainly during his first three seasons at United when he was criticised for the sort of over-elaboration and failure to release the ball quickly enough that would put him on a collision course with Van Nistelrooy. “If it wasn’t a beautiful goal initially it was like it didn’t count for him,” Meulensteen explains.

That mindset, of course, would shift dramatically. Ronaldo had scored 23 goals and claimed his first Premier League title in the season before Meulensteen was drafted into the first team sanctum as technical skills development coach in July 2007.

It was the Dutchman who opened Ronaldo’s eyes to the importance of setting clear targets and who, in pricking his curiosity, accelerated the process that would lead to the Portuguese becoming football’s ultimate goalscoring machine, even if the player had baulked at a 40-goal target that Meulensteen set for the 2007/’08 season.

He would finish it with 42, the Premier League and Champions League titles and later be crowned World Player of the Year for the first time.

“When you understand the power and magic of setting and achieving your targets, it’s like a drug,” Meulensteen says. “You want more.”

Of course, by then, all that work in the gym under the dutiful watch of Clegg, whose strong personal connection with Ronaldo generated enormous trust between the pair, had helped to transform the player’s body.

It is a bit of a myth that the boy from Madeira was slight and skinny when he first pitched up at United – look at the pictures of him in a Sporting shirt the day he terrorised John O’Shea and was duly signed by Ferguson – but now defenders were bouncing off this 6ft 2in winger with a middleweight boxer’s torso and wondering how, if they could not bully him physically, they were supposed to stop a guy who was faster, fitter, smarter and stronger.

He did extensive feet speed drills and was frequently seen strapping weights to his ankles to heighten resistance – the player’s own innovation, Clegg stresses – to ensure his feet felt lighter and quicker during games.

His tremendous leap and aerial prowess – think of that extraordinary header against Roma in 2008 – were enhanced by single-legged jumping with medicine balls and repetitive squats. Sprint work was kept to short distances. “He never did long runs,” Clegg said. “That’s how you end up injured. He’s been very cautious about his programmes. Cristiano was wise enough to watch and listen to all the things about past players’ injuries to ensure he was always available.”

Tony Strudwick was United’s head of performance back then and says that every aspect of Ronaldo’s life was geared towards “setting himself up for success”. One staffer will never forget the time he was dispatched to see the former United midfielder Anderson and Ronaldo, who lived about 400 yards apart down the same leafy lane.

Anderson’s bed was a mattress on the floor, there was no food in the house and remnants of a champagne bottle he had won from a recent man of the match performance were still visible.

“Then I go down to see Cristiano and there’s fresh fruit all over the place, fresh fish in the fridge, the latest weight training equipment, a swimming pool he used regularly,” he recalled.

It is certainly not hard to appreciate why Ronaldo averaged a game every 4.3 days during his time at United and Anderson failed to live up to his potential. Ronaldo was just wired differently.

On the train home from away matches, the first thing Ronaldo would do was ask Ferguson’s assistant, Mike Phelan, for a recording of the game and then sit on his own in a seat behind Strudwick with his headphones on and watch it back. During one of his first individual sessions with Ronaldo, Strudwick recalls making the mistake of trying to talk in between reps during some straight line running exercises.

“He just said to me straight: ‘After’,” Strudwick recalls. “By that he meant, we’re working now, we can talk after. Cristiano had a plan in his head every day. The environment at United was ideal for him but, even in a team of great players, individuals and characters, he was still the outlier. There was just this laser focus from him. In everything he put his hand to there was a relentless drive for perfection.”

The most intense part of the week was a 16-minute 9 v 9 match on Fridays when Meulensteen and Strudwick would referee and get dog’s abuse from players hell-bent on winning. Can you remember how Ronaldo fared in those games? “Yes, he would always win,” Strudwick says, laughing. “They were tight games, 1-0, 2-1, and he’d get the winner. He was always the standout.”

It is no surprise Ronaldo’s return has generated such excitement. “Even my mates in their late 40s are like little kids again,” Giggs says.

For Clegg, who left United in 2011, the joy of seeing Ronaldo back is bettered only by the pride of knowing his son, Michael, the former United defender who followed in his dad’s footsteps and now serves as the club’s strength and power coach, will also get to work with the player he calls a genius. “I used to talk all the time with Michael while Cristiano was developing,” Clegg says. “It’s a beautiful thing to happen.”

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