Is Cristiano Ronaldo Now Manchester United’s Greatest Ever Player?

by · Forbes
MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 20: Cristiano Ronaldo of Manchester United celebrates after scoring a ... [+] goal to make it 3-2 during the UEFA Champions League group F match between Manchester United and Atalanta at Old Trafford on October 20, 2021 in Manchester, United Kingdom. (Photo by Matthew Ashton - AMA/Getty Images)Getty Images

In 2011, I was asked to select an all-time Manchester United side from all the players in the club’s history and write a book about my choices.

I went with a 4-4-2 formation: Peter Schmeichel in goal, a back four of Denis Irwin, Jaap Stam, Duncan Edwards and Roger Byrne, a midfield of Ryan Giggs, Roy Keane, Bobby Charlton and George Best, and a two-man attack of Denis Law and Eric Cantona.

There were some big names I simply could not find space for including Bryan Robson, Rio Ferdinand, Paul Scholes, and most notably of all, Cristiano Ronaldo.

My argument at the time was that Ronaldo was only ever passing through Old Trafford, killing time before Real Madrid inevitably called.

I quoted Oliver Kay, then at The Times, who had said about Ronaldo’s United career: “It was a rocky marriage, but the sex was great.”

MOSCOW, RUSSIA - MAY 21: Cristiano Ronaldo of Manchester United celebrates scoring their first goal ... [+] during the UEFA Champions League Final match between Manchester United and Chelsea at Luzhniki Stadium on May 21, 2008 in Moscow, Russia. (Photo by John Peters/Manchester United via Getty Images)Manchester United via Getty Images

I believed it was important that each player in my side had enjoyed the best years of their career at United, and Ronaldo was then still young enough to reach greater heights in Spain.

This is of course what happened, and in nine years at Real Madrid Ronaldo established himself as both the best player in the world, and arguably the greatest player of all time.

He would win four Champions Leagues, and compete with Lionel Messi for the Ballon d’Or each year, claiming four for himself.

Another reason for his omission was that I wanted the side to capture the spirit of United, and simply couldn’t countenance including Ronaldo at the expense of either George Best or Ryan Giggs, both geniuses who had always quickened the pulse with the ball at their feet.

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On reflection, I can see Ronaldo probably deserved a place in my side, especially as there is an argument he could also be United’s greatest ever player.

MADRID, SPAIN - JULY 06: New Real Madrid player Cristiano Ronaldo is presented to a full house at ... [+] the Santiago Bernabeu stadium on July 6, 2009 in Madrid, Spain. (Photo by Denis Doyle/Getty Images)Getty Images

He could have already earned that title for his achievements in his first spell at Old Trafford when he evolved from a promising talent into the best player in the world in 2008 and 2009.

This helped drive United to three consecutive Premier League titles in 2007, 2008 and 2009, and the Champions League in 2008.

Ronaldo is the only United player to be voted the World Player of the Year, the Ballon d’Or winner, and the English Player of the Year.

This was already more than enough for him to compete with other United legends including George Best, Sir Bobby Charlton, Ryan Giggs and Eric Cantona to be United’s greatest ever player.

But then Ronaldo did something unprecedented, something none of those other players had done, and after a long absence returned to United last summer to continue to add to his reputation in a red shirt.

LONDON, UNITED KINGDOM - NOVEMBER 01: Manchester United football legends Denis Law (l) Bobby ... [+] Charlton and George Best (r) pictured at the launch of the Sky Sports Gold channel in 1995. (Photo by Phil Cole/Allsport/Getty Images)Getty Images

The marriage hadn’t been that rocky after all, and there was more than enough love for Ronaldo to happily return to the club.

In the twelve years between his stays United fans had also taken great pride in how he had been schooled at Old Trafford before dominating the world.

Last season, amid a turbulent time at United, with so much imploding around him, Ronaldo, at the age of 37, was once again the club’s best player.

There were moments of genius; moments that took the breath away, and moments that only Ronaldo could conjure up.

He won the club’s Sir Matt Busby Player of the Year award for last season, fourteen years after he had last won it in 2008, to add to his other wins in 2004 and 2007. He was also the club’s leading scorer with 24 goals.

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 20: Cristiano Ronaldo of Manchester United celebrates after scoring ... [+] their side's third goal during the UEFA Champions League group F match between Manchester United and Atalanta at Old Trafford on October 20, 2021 in Manchester, England. (Photo by Naomi Baker/Getty Images)Getty Images

Ronaldo also won a place in the PFA’s Premier League Team of the Season, a remarkable achievement thirteen years after his last appearance in the side for the 2008-09 season.

The Portuguese striker was not the same player as in his first spell, certainly not as mobile and explosive, but he was far from a tired tribute act relying on past glories.

He set the standards once more at Old Trafford, and was an example to his younger team-mates, as he comfortably outshone them all.

If Ronaldo was a candidate to be United’s greatest ever player for what he did in his first spell between 2003 and 2009, then it is reasonable to suggest his glorious return has now settled the debate in his favour.

This is obviously a highly subjective debate; it is impossible to choose a winner that will satisfy everyone.

Ronaldo’s impressive homecoming last season did not earn him any medals, but it might have won him an even greater title.