This feature is part of Duology
Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United sides were often constructed around sublime attacking talent. From Mark Hughes and Andy Cole to Dwight Yorke to Ruud van Nistelrooy, the football on display at Old Trafford in his incredible 26-year spell was often breathtaking. But as they entered the 21st century, two men stood out from the rest and helped shape this new era for the football club, bringing trophies, goals and pride on the pitch all the while combining to take the club to new heights off it. They are Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo.
The two share similar paths to Old Trafford. Ronaldo rose through the academy of Sporting Clube de Portugal and was their standout talent. It took a friendly in the summer between the Lisbon giants and Manchester United to convince Ferguson to snap up the 18-year-old. The game was billed as something of an audition and, needless to say, the teenager excelled.
Before kick-off, Ferguson had warned his players to keep tabs on the man. After the match, his players and staff pleaded with him to sign the winger immediately. A few weeks on from that friendly, Ronaldo’s £12m move to the club was completed and his road to superstardom had commenced. Awarded the famous number seven shirt, he had lots to live up to, seeing as that particular number, more than any other, retained an immense history at the club.
Meanwhile, just 53 kilometres west, there was another talent brewing in Everton blue, and his name was Wayne Rooney. Having made his debut in 2002, Rooney got off to a scintillating start, especially in games against Arsenal, against whom he scored to become the youngest goalscorer in Premier League history and was a star for England at Euro 2004.
The two were already making history for their respective teams and were combined in the summer of 2004 after Rooney handed in a transfer request at his boyhood club. He became one of Manchester United’s most expensive footballers ever, signing for a fee that went a little over £25m, and the 18-year-old hit the ground running immediately with a hat-trick on his debut in a Champions League home game against Fenerbahçe. From that moment, it was clear to see: with this bright, young core, United were set for something special.
Manchester United were moving away from the old guard that had been so successful in previous years and in came these two youngsters, ready and willing to drive the Red Devils forward on the front foot. They were joined by a handful of academy graduates following promotion into the first team, while the likes of Rio Ferdinand and Louis Saha were yet to reach their peak years. The future looked exceedingly worthwhile in Manchester but, for that season, they were forced to end the year trophyless after losing out in the FA Cup final, League Cup semi-final and finishing third in the league behind Arsenal and Chelsea, who were reaping the rewards of their riches.
On a personal level, however, they were excelling. Rooney’s fine season saw him finish as the club’s top scorer in the Premier League with 11 goals that saw him awarded the PFA Young Player of the Year award, while Ronaldo’s goalscoring output improved despite playing fewer games. The latter was more influential in the matches that mattered as his four FA Cup goals took United all the way to the final and he also put in some fine displays in the league, especially against Arsenal at the start of 2005.
The following year, the club finally had a trophy to show for all their efforts, winning the League Cup after beating Wigan 4-0 at the Millennium Stadium. In a series of sustained progression, both players improved their influences on the scoresheet and it could be seen that they were becoming better footballers overall. But with that improvement came an increase in hunger and the pair seemed to favour dealing with matters in an aggressive manner.
Ronaldo, by now undoubtedly the best and most talented player at the club, had a number of bust-ups with Van Nistelrooy after the Dutchman frequently became infuriated with Ronaldo’s flashy style of play. Unconvinced by his recurrent chops and cutbacks, the striker lashed out in training and told him to “go crying to you daddy” – referring to his assistant coach, advisor and compatriot Carlos Queiroz. He was also sent off in a Manchester derby and gave the Benfica fans a one-finger salute in a Champions League tie that saw him receive a one-match suspension from UEFA.
Rooney, meanwhile, was received his own marching orders in the Champions League for sarcastically applauding the referee after being accused of fouling a Villarreal player. Two young and voraciously hungry athletes; it was only normal that they were aggressive and temperamental but, for Ferguson, the real problem came at the World Cup in 2006 when the two stars flashed their fiery temperaments at one another.
In a quarter-final clash between England and Portugal, a raucous kicked off after Rooney ‘stamped’ on Ricardo Carvalho. Ever the opportunist, Ronaldo rushed to the referee and appealed for the sending-off of his club team-mate and was successful in his claims. To add fuel to the fire, the Portuguese winger cheekily winked at his bench and ensured that fans in England would forego his warm welcome upon his return to club duties.
The media, of course, took advantage of the situation and rumours were persistent that Ronaldo was set to depart. The player himself cited a lack of support from the club and made his intention to leave clear, but any move was blocked by the club, which saw him being integral to their future plans. That incident was, perhaps, the turning point as the club would commence their latest era of dominance following the World Cup.
Now with a far sturdier core following the additions of Patrice Evra and Nemanja Vidić to bolster the back-line, and with Van Nistelrooy departing largely due to his altercations with Ronaldo, United boasted a young team that was ready to challenge the best. At the time, rumours of the alleged tension between Ronaldo and Rooney were quashed by both parties and the club to keep the squad in good spirits as they looked to put an end to their mini-drought in the Premier League.
While Ronaldo was always touted for superstardom, the 2006/07 season was where he proved he could truly reach the highest level. United were proving difficult to beat that season, losing just twice in the opening half of the season as Ronaldo, strongly supported by his partner in crime, could scarcely abstain from adding his name to every scoresheet in sight. But at the turn of the year, the Portuguese forward turned it up a notch, scoring braces at ease as United would hammer their opponents frequently.
Their nearest challengers and defending champions, Chelsea, were having their own problems and failed to catch up and United took full advantage. In early October, the club eased into top spot in the league and convincingly kept themselves there as the attacking duo’s considerable contribution of 31 out of their 83 league goals spurred them on to their 16th top-flight title. For Ronaldo, it was also the opening of his brilliant personal award haul, winning the PFA Players’ Player of the Year, Fans’ Player of the Year, Young Player of the Year and FWA Footballer of the Year gongs, becoming the first player to do so.
Their Champions League run wasn’t as convincing, despite being quietly impressive in the competition with a run that included the famous 7-1 thumping of Roma, as United would bow out to eventual winners AC Milan in the semi-finals. Nevertheless, Ronaldo, surprisingly, got his first goals – some half-a-decade after making his debut in continental competition – and that signalled the start of an incredible journey. They would also lose another FA Cup final to their modern nemeses Chelsea, but the season was received positively overall as they entered a new era.
The following campaign was even more special and, undoubtedly, their best this century. Ferguson had a clear plan in mind and brought in Carlos Tevez to complete the attacking set-up, while Rooney was now awarded the number 10 shirt. Ferguson set up in the 4-4-2 that he was famous for, with Edwin van der Sar in goal, Wes Brown and Evra taking the full-back slots and the silk and steel of Ferdinand and Vidić in defence. In midfield was the quartet of Owen Hargreaves, Paul Scholes and Michael Carrick, with Ronaldo completing the four to support the two up top. Rooney and Tevez.
With that talent came much prolificacy as United would make their attacking intent clear week after week. The start was slow, with Ronaldo failing to score in the league until the end of September and Rooney a week after that. The squad even spent a week hovering just above the relegation zone after failing to win their first three matches. But after shaking off their funk, and leaving behind their uncharacteristically slow spell, they never looked back and became unstoppable, forming one of the Premier League’s greatest-ever teams.
Despite Rooney missing much of the first half of the season due to injury concerns over his ankle, the team was still able to ensure dominance thanks to Ronaldo’s persistence in front of goal. He continued his form from the previous season, where he frequently scored braces and was crowned the Premier League’s top-scorer that season with 31, becoming the first player since Alan Shearer, 12 years prior, to score more than 30 league goals in a single season. The club would retain their title, although with a little more of a challenge as Chelsea and Arsenal frequently lurked on their heels.
Their Champions League record was impeccable as well, losing none of their group games – winning five and drawing one – with Rooney and Ronaldo scoring eight of their 13 goals. In the knockout rounds, Lyon were ousted with some discomfort, while Roma would be surpassed again in the quarter-finals, where Rooney and Ronaldo would score one each in the Italian capital before Tevez sealed the deal at home. Against Barcelona in the semi-finals, the tie was decided by Scholes’ wondergoal in the second leg at Old Trafford, which led them to Moscow where Chelsea, who had unsuccessfully challenged them for the Premier League title, awaited.
At the Luzhniki, Ronaldo would strike first but see his goal cancelled out by Frank Lampard’s; both efforts coming in the first half. After a tense encounter that saw Didier Drogba sent-off in extra-time, the tie would go to penalties. Rooney was already taken off, while Ronaldo would see his last kick of the season saved by Petr Čech. Nevertheless, luck would favour them as John Terry’s slip and Nicolas Anelka’s dire effort would help the club win its third Champions League title and give this legendary team a fitting reward.
The pair, again, would put up astounding numbers, scoring 60 goals throughout the season. Despite Rooney’s injury troubles at the start, his contribution proved vital in the Champions League, as well as the cup games, despite failing early on in the League and FA Cup. Ronaldo, meanwhile, carried on his gold-star level, retaining the PFA and FWA Player of the Year awards whilst also adding the Premier League and European Golden Boots. He would also be named the UEFA Club Footballer of the Year. In total, his 42 goals that campaign established him as the world’s best footballer and he won the Ballon d’Or and FIFA World Player of the Year awards for his unrelenting excellence.
Still young, the squad would repeat their extraordinary domestic feats the following year. Another slow start required another good comeback as United first picked up top-spot in January. From there they refused to look back. Despite a smattering of defeats towards the end of the campaign, they would win the league for a record-equalling 18th time.
A key display came against Tottenham in a game that they were destined to lose; a result that would have had serious implications on the title race. Being down 2-0 at half-time, both Rooney and Ronaldo would score braces to ensure they held their advantage in the race for the league. This game represented Manchester United in a nutshell; the grit, fight and resilience evident in every player were vital to their successes and that was why they were so successful. They also added the League Cup and Club World Cup to their haul.
In Europe, the club continued its era of dominance as Ronaldo made the Champions League his personal highlight reel of mind-boggling goals. After crawling to qualification from the group stages, they would take apart Internazionale with ease before Ronaldo’s extraordinary strike from 40-yards out – an eventual Puskás Award winner – was the highlight of a 3-2 aggregate success against Porto. In the semi-finals against Arsenal, he would score from 40-yards again, this time from a direct free-kick as their local rivals were denied a spot in the final.
But in Rome itself, they were unable to repeat their heroics from the last year, losing 2-0 to Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona, who would take over the reigns as Europe’s best and retain the label for the ensuing seasons. This was perhaps the start of the Lionel Messi-Cristiano Ronaldo comparisons and also the last time the Portuguese donned the United crest, thus ending his partnership with Rooney with a fine 46-goal campaign.
Over the course of five years together, the pair won seven trophies and scored 215 times as United ran riot at home and in Europe. It is clear that United failed to replace their departed number seven, despite winning the odd trophies over the years that followed his departure. The likes of Nani, Antonio Valencia, Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford have all tried but haven’t yet reached Ronaldo’s level, though hope remains for the latter pair considering their tender age.
Rooney also turned up as the club’s leading talisman as a large majority of his goals for the club came after Ronaldo left. However, it seems certain that he would’ve preferred the presence of his former friend as the two were ideal together. From Manchester to Tokyo, Rome to Moscow, they ran opponents ragged wherever they played and formed the essence of the club.
By Karan Tejwani @karan_tejwani26
Edited by Will Sharp @shillwarp