By Iwan Lehnert
There’s a good chance that we’ve all been on the end of someone else’s romantic tether at one stage of our lives. You might not hear from this person for prolonged periods, weeks or even months, until a random message arrives, suggesting that they might be interested in rekindling a relationship, when in reality, the likelihood is that they are simply craving attention. Of course, after the 400th occurrence, such advances lose some of their spark to the point where you wonder if this person genuinely likes you or are intentionally mucking with you out of some misplaced and intense need for affection that they aren’t getting elsewhere.
Enter Cristiano Ronaldo…
Some Manchester United fans aren’t so much once bitten, twice shy when it comes to the oft-reported return of Ronaldo to the club that made him, as much as they are incapable of stopping their eyes from rolling back into their skulls whenever this story periodically rears its head. It’s the transfer that won’t do the decent thing and eject itself from a party, despite being politely asked to leave several times after spilling drinks and food all over your nice furniture. Of course, the marriage of the world’s biggest club and football’s biggest egotistical goal-getter is a news teat that will never run dry for the world’s press; it sells, pure and simple, but with last weekend’s reports that Ronaldo still hankered after a return to Old Trafford yet was stuck in the Spanish capital, chained to nasty ol’ Real Madrid who don’t appreciate him, it feels like we’ve turned a rather desperate corner in this most intensely annoying transfer saga.
What’s especially frustrating here is that the story beats never seem to get updated, like a lazy Hollywood blockbuster writer bashing out the same explosive action movie guff year after year. At the heart of it appears to be Ronaldo’s perception of the supposed preferential treatment that Lionel Messi enjoys over in Barcelona that isn’t on display in Madrid, and a frustration that the crowds that pack the Santiago Bernabeu don’t provide the sort of adoration on tap that his remarkable scoring achievement might warrant. So, he throws a strop, allows his people to leak stories of dissatisfaction and a desire to return to England, moans to club president Florentino Perez and is placated for six months to a year by yet another pay rise.
At this stage, it’s nigh-on impossible to feel much in the way of sympathy for the man, mostly because the behaviour of Los Blancos’ fans and power brokers that consistently provokes this want-away attitude is neither new nor surprising. It also fails to shock when United’s name is dragged into the conversation, either, such has been the regularity with which Ronaldo and (presumably) his agent, Jorge Mendes have been keen to privately talk up this romantic homecoming. United, keen as they have understandably been to explore the possibility of a deal in the past have been burned several times by this ruse, most notably in 2013 when David Moyes was in charge and a deal was reportedly in place before a not-so stunning turn of events led to a contract extension. Real’s perceived lack of support for Ronaldo after he was levied with tax evasion charges last summer appears to have provoked this latest discontent, but given that coddling this super-sized ego appears to be a full time job in itself, some sympathy for the club themselves wouldn’t be unduly warranted.
If United were cautious about how serious Ronaldo’s desire to leave last summer was, then now, several months later with fresh mumblings of discontent and a desire to return to Manchester plastered over the likes of AS and El Confidencial, you’d hope that by now, the club’s mood has shifted to ambivalence. That’s not to say that he doesn’t hold a special place in the hearts of fans that still sing his name, because he certainly does; he was a key part of one of the most successful and enjoyable periods in United’s entire history, contributing to three Premier League titles, an FA Cup, two League Cups, the Club World Cup and that famous Champions League triumph in Moscow. No statues will be made in his honour, sure, but his contribution to the club won’t be forgotten, and he will likely remain one of the best players to ever ply their trade at Old Trafford.
His stay at the club ended almost nine years ago, however. Ronaldo left for Spain in 2009, and whilst United have failed to reach the summit of European football since, and are still yet to fully emerge from the wilderness created by the retirement of Sir Alex Ferguson, they’ve mostly moved on. Strictly speaking, there is no real footballing need for Ronaldo to return now, not after United spent £85m on Romelu Lukaku last summer, not with Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford needing to continue their development and not with Alexis Sanchez wearing the no. 7 shirt. Goals are Ronaldo’s thing, and United have plenty of players who can provide them.
With his 33rd birthday approaching in February, Ronaldo has reached the stage of his career where he is arguably a greater commercial asset to United than he is a footballing one. A recent uptick in goalscoring form doesn’t mask the fact that he is now a dedicated goalscorer as opposed to a creative force, and Jose Mourinho doesn’t have to look far to see the fallacy in shaping your team around an aging predator. Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s 28 goals were a huge part of United’s success last season, but United were beholden to him in attack, and have looked a far more fluid, flexible and dangerous outfit with Lukaku as the team’s number 9 instead. Ronaldo may be a few years behind the Swede in age, but it’s not a stretch to suggest that United would likely have to play through him in a similar fashion in order to accommodate his talents, and that’s not nearly as exciting a thought as it would have been a few years ago.
Ronaldo has made no secret of his affection for United over the years, but this reported desire to return to Old Trafford has been predicated on the suggestion that this is the club where he felt the most loved, and that doesn’t hold water. From a United perspective, the door has been open on this homecoming for years, and if feeling the club’s full support was of such import to him then he would surely have returned ‘home’ by now, even if his issues with Manchester’s climate are well documented.
But he hasn’t moved. Instead, he’s gratefully gobbled up every new contract that Perez has sent his way, whilst time has ticked on to the point where United arguably no longer have a great need for his services. At the risk of appearing sanctimonious, the disruption that such a raging egotist could cause to a side still struggling for consistency could cause is less-than palatable, and that’s only exacerbated when you consider the size and volatility of the personality currently in the manager’s chair.
At this stage, with Ronaldo edging slowly towards the endgame of a stunning career, and his old club showing signs of being capable of a return to football’s top table with a core of exciting young players, there’s a sense that the ship has sailed on this oft-touted romantic reunion. Perhaps Ed Woodward and the club’s owners will prove us all wrong, and push the boat out to bring the most marketable face in the game back to North West England, but with United building what could be an impressive side under Mourinho and the Portugal captain’s powers waning, taking a trip down memory lane to bring Ronaldo ‘back home’ seems like a fairly needless exercise.