How Ronaldo will help our young stars develop
Cristiano Ronaldo returns to Manchester United to provide goals, to win trophies and to act as the latest in a long line of talismanic no. 7s at the club who have helped develop the next generation.
Homegrown talents have been at the core of United’s most successful sides. Around them, the world’s best young prospects – Tommy Taylor in 1953, Denis Law in 1962, Roy Keane in 1993, Rio Ferdinand in 2002, Wayne Rooney in 2004 and Jadon Sancho in 2021 – have been brought in from elsewhere, and a selection of experienced winners too, such as Bryan Robson in 1981, Steve Bruce in 1987, Dwight Yorke in 1998, Robin van Persie in 2012 and Bruno Fernandes in 2020.
When Ronaldo joined United in 2003, he was one of the world’s best young prospects. In 2021, he’s brought in as the latter instead, one of the greatest winners in the history of the game.
Four years ago when Ronaldo won his fifth Ballon d’Or, he took a moment to pay tribute to those who had helped him develop at United.
“The English mentality is different, and those people,” he said, talking about Ryan Giggs, Keane and Ferdinand, “helped me a lot to be what I am now. I have to thank my colleagues in Manchester.”
Ronaldo was driven long before he joined United; he wanted to be the world’s best. But there were still lessons to be learned. Giggs once berated a young Ronaldo for drinking Coke at breakfast. It was a little lesson that had a long-lasting impact. During the summer, Ronaldo made headlines when he removed a bottle of Coke from his press conference table, urging people to drink water instead. Giggs played for United longer than any other player has served an English club; his attention to detail in his fitness only grew with age. Ronaldo watched and learned.
For Giggs, and for Keane, who protected Ronaldo on the pitch after taking an instant liking to his determined attitude and notable work rate, they had undergone a similar education while playing with Eric Cantona.
Sir Alex Ferguson said Cantona “swaggered in” and acted as if he was asking, ‘I’m Cantona. How big are you? Are you big enough for me?’ Players had to step up to match his level, as many have since admitted. Gary Pallister said he “brought a new professionalism to the club,” Ole Gunnar Solskjaer admitted he “learned so much from him” and Phil Neville explained that “Cantona was like ‘Here, this is what the top players do.’”
Ben Thornley revealed that Ferguson used to tell United’s young players to soak in everything they could from Cantona.
"He always used to say to us 'Look at Eric Cantona - just watch him,’” Thornley wrote in his autobiography.
"He told us to watch him in the dressing room, to watch what he does before he goes out to training. He was all alone, he doesn't speak, he motivates himself.”
Cantona had the winning mentality, and it came in two forms; first, in his confidence, arrogance and self-belief; second, in his professionalism, his training and his work rate.
Take that previous sentence and apply it to Ronaldo, too. It fits.
Players took different things from Cantona. Some were inspired by specific exercises he did in training, such as volleying the ball against a wall with both feet in spare moments, ensuring his touch was good, fresh, and ready to be perfect during matches. Others noted how he prepared for games, how he found motivation by speaking to himself, not by shouting at others. Others benefitted from the helping hand he offered players just coming into the first team.
Before one game, Cantona asked a young Michael Appleton: “What are you good at?” Appleton said: “Keeping it simple, winning the ball and looking after it.” “Ok,” Cantona said. “Win the ball, give it to me, run and I’ll find you.” It was a set of simple instructions to follow, easing the nerves. Appleton did what he was asked, and Cantona found him, time and time again.
That was on the pitch. Keane tells a story from inside the dressing room when Steve Bruce arrived with a cheque to be split between the players for some media work. The players could decide to take their cut or take part in a draw for the whole amount instead, winner takes all. Only Paul Scholes and Nicky Butt opted to play for the pot. After Cantona won it, he arrived the next day with two cheques made out to Scholes and Butt, a reward for their bravery. Keane said, writing in his second autobiography The Second Half, “it was Eric to a T; the unexpected, a touch of class and an appreciation of the plight of two young lads in need of the money more than himself.”
Other players simply copied Cantona’s way of training, staying out on the pitch long after the team and working on specific parts of his game. David Beckham certainly did. He’d practise free-kicks, hitting targets on a building wall so he wouldn’t have to go chasing the balls after. It paid dividends throughout his career, for United and England.
Cantona had it all, he was a true talisman, as is well documented. Robson was his predecessor as United’s number seven and had a similar influence on certain players, whether it was through players emulating his performances or how he protected young players coming through. Lee Sharpe told the UTD Podcast of a time he’d been scythed down in a game at a young age. Robson waited 10 minutes until the offending opposition player, Paul Stewart, was passed the ball.
“Bryan Robson’s just gone straight through him,” Sharpe explained. “He’s gone straight through him from ankle height to about waste high with a forearm smash to the throat.”
“Paul Stewart landed on the deck, virtually crying, getting carried off, and Robson’s turned around to me, winked and gone: ‘You are alright now kid.' I went, ‘Oh yes, I am'.”
It was a different era and a different type of leadership, but a crucial one that demonstrated protection and earned trust.
Ronaldo’s leadership will be about mentality and that will rub off on United’s young players. Robson explained earlier this week that Ronaldo can be a “catalyst for greater things” with the “standards he sets on and off the pitch.”
There is this lineage at United, much of linking to Cantona, Robson and Keane, three great talismanic players, two of whom wore No. 7.
There is so much talented youth in this United squad who, over the past few years, have had the privilege of working with some of football’s best players.
Marcus Rashford looked up to Wayne Rooney and Ronaldo when he was a kid in the Academy. By the end of this year, he will have played alongside them both. In between his experiences with those two, he’s learned from Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Edinson Cavani too.
Mason Greenwood is another who looked up to Ronaldo and Rooney. That he has learnt from Cavani is blatantly obvious on the pitch. His movement in the recent games against Leeds, Southampton and Wolves have shown that.
Ronaldo will set an example not just to United’s forwards but the whole team. What they learn from him will be up to them. How much they want to take in will be up to them. Some will be inspired by specific training drills, others by Ronaldo’s mentality, others by his movement in the box. This is a player who has always been so driven in what he does, first to get to the top, then to stay there and then to challenge himself again and again. United’s other players will rightly look at how he trains, how he arrives at training, how he recovers, what he eats, how he acts before matches, how he talks to opponents, how he moves in the box and soak it all up.
As Robson looked after teammates, Cantona showed how to train, Keane ensured against complacency and Giggs showed how to find longevity, Ronaldo will show the winning mentality to this young United squad. Maybe in a decade’s time, the trend will have been continued, maybe a future Ballon d’Or winner will speak, trophy in hand, and pay tribute to this era at United and explain what they learnt by playing alongside of the game’s great winners.