MANCHESTER, England – And just like that, everything was exactly as it was before, like nothing had ever changed, like it had never been away. Cristiano Ronaldo had scored again. Manchester United were winning again. The fans were elated, once again. He was finally home, and so were they.
For successive generations of Manchester United fans, Old Trafford was a place of certainty. The vast majority drawn here on Saturday afternoon lived through those days: of overwhelming domination and Fergie Time, when a ticket came with a satisfaction guarantee and the seasons ended, reliably, with smiles and laughter. glory. Those who weren’t old enough to remember – a slightly larger cohort than the club would like – were raised on the stories, learned that this was the natural order.
Over the past eight years, however, that bond has declined. Most of the managers tasked with emulating Alex Ferguson had moments of promise, however fleeting they ultimately came to light. Louis van Gaal and José Mourinho handed out trophies, but not those the club dreams of. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, the incumbent, restored spirit and faith.
But none have quite succeeded in making Old Trafford, Manchester United at Old Trafford, indomitable again. Even in the midst of their highs, when things seemed to be going well and momentum was building, there was a palpable fragility, as if only the thinnest membrane separated triumph from disaster. There have been too many missteps, too many missteps, too many days Burnley, Crystal Palace or Sheffield United got here and won. Too often the warranty has been broken.
Ronaldo’s restoration erases that at once. There has been a distinct giddiness around Manchester United since those swirling 24 hours at the end of August – the frantic calls from former teammates; The decisive intervention of Ferguson, his former manager and current mentor, when he agreed to return.
The delirium, at times, took only a hint of gratitude, as if an institution as large as United considered themselves lucky that Ronaldo had agreed to honor them with his presence.
The club have devoted their social media feeds almost exclusively to Ronaldo and have boasted incorrigibly of the kind of numbers they are capable of generating: 700,000 more Twitter mentions than Lionel Messi’s transfer to Paris Saint-Germain , to start. He hastily redesigned the giant mural that adorns Old Trafford so that it can be in the center. He reorganized his team – selling Daniel James, asking Edinson Cavani to change his jersey number – so Ronaldo could wear No.7 on his back again.
Maybe aware Ronaldo doesn’t like his status being called into question – one of his former Real Madrid managers has already been censored by the club for suggesting that Ronaldo was simply one of the greatest players in all the time – anyone connected with United has been paying attention. to insist that the title is objectively and scientifically his own, and not simply a matter of opinion.
Ahead of Saturday’s game against Newcastle, Solskjaer suggested that Ronaldo would be the one to ensure high standards among the rest of the squad, that there could be no slacking off with him present, something that looks a lot like that really should. be a key part of the manager’s job description. Friday night, before his debut, it was Ronaldo who addressed the team.
Part of that, of course, can be attributed to the scale of Ronaldo’s stardom, a fame he gained in an era and culture in which individuals, increasingly, are the brightest lights. of all. He has more Instagram followers than any other person on the planet. He has more followers, in fact, than any football team.
He inspires a portion of his fanbase with a loyalty that is both heartfelt and fierce: a loyalty that not only tolerates any debate over his athletic status, but reacts with fury at any mention of the rape accusation that prompted a self-proclaimed feminist. group to fly a plane over Old Trafford on Saturday, urging fans to “believe Kathryn Mayorga”, the woman who brought the charge. Nevada prosecutors said in 2019 that Ronaldo would not face charges related to the allegation, although a civil case is pending.
For United, however, Ronaldo is more than just an idol. It is also a link with a glorious past, in which the world organized itself much more to the club’s taste, when it was the undisputed force of English football and, at times, the preeminent club in Europe, rather than one of two superpowers in his own city.
And, above all, it is a reminder of their old certainty. Ronaldo, 36, has built his career on his inevitability. No matter how bad the circumstances, the stacking of chances, or the inconsistency of logic, Ronaldo would score and his team would win. His raw numbers – goals scored and trophies won and records broken – more than illustrate his greatness. They prove his relentlessness.
This is why it is futile to try to impose any sporting logic on his return. It doesn’t matter that he doesn’t really fit into Solskjaer’s tactical scheme or that he doesn’t particularly address the flaws that remain in this team.
What matters is that after United struggled for 45 minutes to break a stubborn Newcastle side, Ronaldo appeared to score the opening goal. What matters is that after Newcastle equalized, Ronaldo moved away into enough space to recover a Luke Shaw pass, burst into the box and shot straight at Freddie Woodman, the Newcastle goalkeeper. What matters is that Ronaldo alone reassures Old Trafford.
With just a few minutes of his debut, the game settled – Bruno Fernandes and Jesse Lingard had added some shine to the scoring line – and the sun was shining, the Stretford End, home of United’s most ardent fans, began to taunt Newcastle’s traveling assistance. “You only came to see Ronaldo,” they sang.
About an hour after the final whistle, when much of the rest of the stadium had emptied, many of them remained in their places. The post-match media interviews took place on the side of the pitch, directly in front of them. Nemanja Matic and Fernandes and Shaw and Solskjaer had all come out to face the cameras, but they were still not satisfied. “We want Ronaldo,” fans chanted, over and over, until he finally appeared, with a shy smile and a shy wave. They were always there to see him too, the man who made us feel right at home.