“I love Manchester. Everyone knows that — I have said it many times. Manchester is in my heart. I left many good friends there, the supporters are amazing and I wish I can come back one day.”
The words of Cristiano Ronaldo, and what a gift they are to headline writers everywhere.
Ronaldo does this periodically, and since leaving Old Trafford he has frequently spoken in public about his lingering affection for Manchester United. As a result, one of the background stories over the past few years has been the Portuguese’s potential return to Old Trafford - and the usual transfer-mongers don’t need much encouragement to flesh-out the narrative and write the normal suggestive content.
The question is always if Cristiano Ronaldo, whereas maybe the more pertinent query is whether he should come back to England.
Ask the average Manchester United fan as to whether they’d like to see Ronaldo back where he made his name, and they would probably instinctively tell you yes - but that’s probably based on romanticism more than practicality. Who doesn’t like the symmetry of the old player returning and which supporters don’t covet the chance to say goodbye on their own terms.
But think about what Cristiano Ronaldo is.
He’s twenty-nine years-old, he’s played fifty club games or more in three of the last four seasons, and his body is starting to show natural wear and tear. By the time the issue of his availability becomes pertinent again, he will have turned thirty and he will have suffered the attrition of another domestic and European season. So much of what Ronaldo does well is based on the speed at which he does it. Beyond the tricks and flicks, this is a player who owes a lot of his success to his pace and his ability to accelerate away from defenders. He’s one of the most technically-gifted forwards on the planet, but without that underlying speed his effectiveness would drop significantly.
What does that mean for his future?
While there’s no reason to believe that he’s incapable of sustaining his relevance well into his thirties, you suspect that to do that Ronaldo will eventually have to tailor his game around his age. Rather than being the dynamic force that he currently is, he will presumably move into a more rigid role at some point and become an altogether more static player. Whether he stays at Real Madrid or moves away, within the next few years the challenge will be for his manager to preserve the relevance of his goal-scoring and chance-creation attributes whilst at the same time protecting him physically.
So would Manchester United really want to be part of that process?
The standards set by Ronaldo during his prime have been so pronounced and so high, that whatever happens next will inevitably provide an unflattering contrast. Therefore it’s difficult not to see a potential return to England as more of a farewell tour rather than a legitimate transfer - and can United really afford to be that sentimental? And how much do those fans actually want to see a lesser version of an era-defining player - surely it’s better to preserve the memory of what he was the first around?
Nobody ever wanted to see Ronaldo leave and when that’s the case the desire to see him return will always remain, but there needs to be a bit more realism with this and more of an appreciation of what the twilight years of his career are likely to be.