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Inside The Vault | Cristiano Ronaldo’s Manchester United debut in 2003

Updated: Sep 19, 2022

In this edition of ‘Inside The Vault’, we look back at Cristiano Ronaldo’s Manchester United debut on August 16th, 2003.


On this day in 2003, Cristiano Ronaldo made his Manchester United debut.

Few then could have predicted the impact the Portuguese footballer would make on the modern game over the next 16 years (and counting).

Ronaldo had joined United in the summer of 2003 after impressing against the Red Devils for Sporting Lisbon in a pre-season friendly. Alex Ferguson decided to purchase the teenager for £12.25 million four days before United’s opening Premier League fixture of the 2003/04 season against Bolton.

Ronaldo arrived to the club as another legendary winger departed, with David Beckham swapping Manchester for Madrid in a path that would later be trodden by Ronaldo himself.

67,647 fans entered the turnstiles at Old Trafford for the visit of Sam Allardyce’s Bolton on August 16th as Fergie’s champions began their title defence.

Ronaldo did not make the starting eleven, but was named among the substitutes, and club legend George Best would later describe his first United appearance as "undoubtedly the most exciting debut performance I've ever seen".

Ryan Giggs gave the hosts the lead with a free kick in the 35th minute, and United led 1-0 at the break.

Ronaldo emerged from the dugout shortly after the hour mark, with the famous number seven – recently vacated by Beckham – emblazoned on the back of his red jersey.

Fresh-faced and sporting blonde highlights in his hair, Ronaldo replaced Nicky Butt in the 61st minute - earning the first of many standing ovations at the Theatre of Dreams - with United still leading 1-0.

As the BBC match report later noted, it was Ronaldo's introduction that acted "as the catalyst for United's three-goal haul after the break".

He was dispossessed in his first involvement, but soon settled into the game on the left wing.

A clever backheel and turn on his third possession was a sign of the dazzling footwork that was to come.

The Portuguese teenager then turned Nicky Hunt inside out with rapid stepovers on the wing after being picked out by Roy Keane, only to slip after dribbling his way into the box.

Another Ronaldo run down the left channel resulted in a penalty when Kevin Nolan tugged the debutant's jersey.

Ruud Van Nistelrooy missed his spot kick, but Giggs doubled United's lead in the 74th minute.

Scholes made it 3-0 three minutes later, and Van Nistelrooy completed the scoring three minutes from time.

Ronaldo set up two big chances for Diego Forlan and Van Nistelrooy respectively, but both strikers fluffed their lines.

One trademark dribble saw Ronaldo beat a hot of Bolton players with ease before a frustrated Ivan Campo stopped the teenager with a cynical foul.

The 18-year-old assumed set piece duty for a late free kick wide on the right wing, which he fizzed into the box at pace.

United ran out as comfortable 4-0 winners, but it was Ronaldo's introduction that raised the team's performance to another level.

His exciting debut generated plenty of excitement in the stands and in the media.

"It was a marvellous debut, almost unbelievable," Sir Alex Ferguson gushed afterwards.

"I thought the pace was too slow in the first half and I knew Cristiano would add penetration."

His opposite number Sam Allardyce was also full of praise for the debutant.

"He reminds me of Ryan Giggs when he first started," the Bolton boss said.

"He can go inside, outside, uses both feet and runs at people. Everyone holds their breath when he gets the ball."

Ronaldo's first start came against Wolves on August 27th, and scored his first United goal with a free kick against Portsmouth (sound familiar?) on November 1st.

Over the next six seasons, Ronaldo would go on to establish himself as one of the greatest players to grace English football.

He won three Premier League titles, two League Cups, the FA Cup, the Club World Cup and the Champions League with United before joining Real Madrid for a world record fee of £80 million in 2009.

The rest is history.

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