By Iwan Lehnert
We’ve all likely been on the end of someone else’s romantic tether at one stage of our lives. We’ve all liked someone with a little more intensity than they reserved for us, even if they regarded us with a certain degree of warmth. You might not hear from them for prolonged periods, weeks or even months, until a random message arrives, suggesting that they might be interested in rekindling your relationship, or at the very least, getting a massive contract and image rights deal from you. And after the 4000th time, such advances lose some of their spark to the point where you wonder if this person is just intentionally mucking with you out of some misplaced and intense need for affection.
Some Manchester United fans aren’t so much once bitten, twice shy when it comes to the oft-reported return of Cristiano Ronaldo as they are incapable of stopping their eyes from rolling back into their skulls whenever the latest batch of rumours arise. It’s the transfer that won’t do the decent thing and eject itself from the party, despite telling the same story about how they locked their keys in their car that one time to everyone in the room. 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 report that Ronaldo still hankered after a return to Old Trafford but 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 studio 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 he doesn’t receive in Madrid, and a frustration that the Bernabeu crowd doesn’t provide the sort of adoration on tap that his remarkable scoring achievements could arguably 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 another pay rise.
At this stage, it’s nigh-on impossible to feel much in the way of sympathy for ol’ Ronnie, 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. And the club, keen as they have understandably been to explore the possibility of a deal in the past have been burned several times, most notably in 2013 when David Moyes was in charge and a deal was reportedly in place. On this occasion, it appears that Real’s perceived lack of support for Ronaldo after he was levied with tax evasion charges last summer stung the player deeply, and that remains an open sore.
I know. Poor guy.
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 all over the likes of AS and El Confidencial, you’d hope that by now, the mood had shifted to ambivalence. That’s not to say that he doesn’t hold a special place in the hearts of those at the club and the 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 in Moscow. No statutes will be made in his honour, sure, but his contribution to club won’t be forgotten, and he will likely remain one of the best players to ever ply his trade at Old Trafford.
Thing is, his stay at the club ended almost nine years ago. 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 spending £85m on Romelu Lukaku, not with Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford needing to continue their development and not, if all goes to plan, with the potential arrival of Alexis Sanchez on the cards. 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 combination of age and the intensity of his hugely successful career are starting to take their toll, with a paltry return of 4 La Liga goals this term pointing to a partial blunting of his abilities, even if Real are experiencing a remarkably limp season by their standards. That’s not to say that he should be consigned to the scrapheap, of course; he clearly still has plenty to offer, but you only have to look back to last season to see the potential problem of building your attack around a top quality goalscorer who requires the team to be shaped to around them. Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s 28 goals were a huge part of United’s success last season, of course they were, but Jose Mourinho’s team 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, 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 love, and that doesn’t hold water. From a United perspective, the door has been open on his homecoming for years, and if feeling the club’s full support was so important to him then he would surely have returned ‘home’ by now, even if his issues with the local 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’s ticked on and we’ve reached a point where United arguably no longer need him. I can’t sit here and claim that I didn’t hold a deep affection for the man during his time at the club, and still retain a soft spot for him to this day. It’s difficult not to. But we are also dealing with a massie egotist, someone for whom personal gratification has often been primary in his thinking.
At this stage, with Ronaldo edging slowly towards the endgame of a stunning career, and his old club starting to appear capable of a return to football’s top table thanks to 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 me wrong, and push the boat out to bring the most marketable face in the game back to North West England, but at this stage, with United building 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.