When Cristiano Ronaldo first signed for Manchester United in 2003 a clear divide seemed to appear with how he was respected and revered by the fans and the wider media perception of his talents.
The Portuguese prodigy had wowed everybody with his performance in the friendly against us with Sporting Club and there was a real buzz of excitement around Old Trafford when he arrived, as there is now, some 18 years later.
And he delivered on his debut against Bolton Wanderers. The feeling in the stands that day was that we were witnessing the start of something special – this was a boy with George Best-like qualities to get supporters off their seats.
‘You’ve only come to see Ronaldo’ quickly became a chant aimed at opposition fans in the coming weeks and months. Yes, he was that good.
Yet as he bedded in to the demanding Premier League, the critics started sharpening their knives. I distinctly recall one much-respected journalist writing a magazine column to stress Ronaldo was never what he would deem to be a ‘proper United player’.
There were suggestions he dived and went to ground too easily, also that he lacked an end product. Maybe an early meme was of a cartoon of him doing lots of step-overs and then falling over. And these accusations quickly stuck. I would have many an argument with friends who supported other clubs, championing his obvious ability, while they would deride this magical footballer and insist he did not have what it takes to play in the English top flight.
Perhaps the stats in his first season almost supported their view. He did only score four league goals (from 29 games) in that maiden campaign but he finished it with a headed goal in the FA Cup final win over Millwall and a Man-of-the-Match display on the big stage, despite what Sven-Goran Eriksson felt in handing the official award to Ruud van Nistelrooy instead.
However, it was never going to be a case of I-told-you-so with Cristiano Ronaldo. He is one of those footballers who was always going to reach the dizzy heights and it has been his unmatched determination and devotion to become the best that has elevated him further up the rankings of the greatest players the sport has ever seen than anybody present at Old Trafford for that Bolton game could even have imagined.
This is somebody who has just broken the international men’s scoring record, been joint top-scorer at the summer’s major tournament, despite his country being knocked out in the round of 16, and finished last season with the Capocannoniere award as the leading marksman in Serie A.
Like fine Madeiran wine, he appears to somehow becoming better with age. Whatever your definition of world-class is, Ronaldo, at 36, is still very much in this category.
Nonetheless, it did not take long for the doubters to reappear soon after his sensational return to United was announced.
All of a sudden, stories started to emerge questioning the deal and Cristiano’s ability to perform again in the Premier League. I appreciate everyone is entitled to an opinion but, genuinely, some of the ‘hot takes’ on the transfer have been mind boggling. Maybe they are purely designed to generate attention by taking a contrary view but, as Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has already stated, any naysayers will only fire our no.7 up even more.
He might not be dribbling down the wing as often this time around but he has refined his game perfectly to become an exceptional centre-forward and is surely the best header of a ball in the game. There are never any guarantees in football but Ronaldo scoring goals for Ole’s Reds has got to be inevitable.
So as we approach the second debut of one of our greatest-ever players, it is easy to comprehend why there is so much excitement this time around to even surpass the expectations in 2003.
Those who remember his initial arrival have grown older, some becoming parents, and have been granted this glorious opportunity to witness his genius live again on a regular basis and introduce a new generation to marvel at his quality in the flesh. Instead of boring our children about how great it was to go to Moscow, chanting ‘viva Ronaldo’ in the subway and knowing, just knowing, the greatest player on the planet was playing for United, now they can experience it for themselves.
Little wonder entrance to Old Trafford on Saturday is the hottest ticket in town, as it is going to be all season.
A different Ronaldo to the teenaged one will reappear in the red no.7 shirt but watching him will be every bit as intoxicating as his first memorable spell at the club.