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Cristiano Ronaldo replaces Nicky Butt on his Manchester United debut
Cristiano Ronaldo replaced Nicky Butt for his Manchester United debut in August 2003

Cristiano Ronaldo’s first forward surge as a Premier League player was not a memorable one.

The 18-year-old winger had been introduced for Nicky Butt as a 61st-minute substitute in Manchester United’s season opener against Bolton at Old Trafford on 16 August 2003.

About 60 seconds later, Ronaldo took the ball close to the touchline just inside his own half, near the dugouts, and stepped inside Bolton defender Nicky Hunt, who was only 19 himself and making his top-flight debut.

Ronaldo had three touches with his right foot before Hunt slid in and took the ball away from the young Portuguese.

“When he came on, my first thought wasn’t ‘I am in absolute trouble, he is going to skin me alive’,” recalled Hunt in a chat with BBC Sport.

“I had just done 70 minutes and thought I had done OK. We were only 1-0 down and to me it was just another player.

“It was my job to go and tackle him. That is what I did. I smashed him – twice. Then he ran rings round me.”

‘One of the most exciting young players I have seen’

Nicky Hunt and Cristiano Ronaldo challenge for the ball at Old Trafford in August 2003
Nicky Hunt (left) spent several seasons in the Premier League with Bolton

It is two decades now since that game – and no-one who was there will ever forget Ronaldo’s cameo.

It came four days after United signed him from Sporting Lisbon for £12.2m, and nine days after Ronaldo had turned in a magical performance for the Portuguese club in a pre-season friendly against Sir Alex Ferguson’s side, who were on their way back from an arduous four-match tour of the United States.

Defender John O’Shea has rejected Rio Ferdinand’s claim he needed an “oxygen mask” at half-time in Lisbon such was the difficulty he was having in subduing Ronaldo.

But the Irishman was impressed, stating that before kick-off “he stared me in the face [to say] I’m ready”.

It was an attitude that backed up unusually bullish quotes from Ferguson in the official statement confirming Ronaldo’s arrival.

“He is an extremely talented footballer, a two-footed attacker who can play anywhere up front: right, left or through the middle. He is one of the most exciting young players I’ve ever seen,” the United boss said.

Sir Alex Ferguson alongside new Manchester United players Kleberson and Cristiano Ronaldo in 2003
Cristiano Ronaldo joined Manchester United in the same summer as Brazilian midfielder Kleberson

As United had also handed over the iconic number seven shirt left free after David Beckham’s departure for Real Madrid, they could not be accused of underplaying their hand.

“We were trying to prepare for our first game and there was all the hype about this 18-year-old Diego Maradona-esque player,” said Hunt.

“We were trying to ignore it but it just became bigger and bigger. It was in all the papers, on all the TV programmes and the internet. It was impossible to ignore.

“Anybody in the professional game would be lying if they were playing against someone with a massive pedigree like that and said they didn’t look over as he came out for the warm-up.

“When I saw him, he was stick thin. I was a really skinny player. He was scrawny. Black hair with blonde highlights, full of acne. You are thinking ‘he is really young, he can’t be as good as they are all making out’. But he was.”

‘We’re not leaving without him’

Few of United’s players were enthusiastic about the prospect of the Lisbon trip.

After a gruelling tour, most wanted to get home – as shown by their 3-1 defeat at the end of a week that included beating Juventus and Barcelona in front of combined audiences of almost 150,000 in New Jersey and Philadelphia.

But without it, the club might have missed out on the man Ferguson said in his most recent autobiography was “the most gifted player I managed”.

United had a coaching agreement with Sporting, were aware of Ronaldo and had already come to a loose deal for the teenager to remain in Portugal for two more years before he moved to England.

However, neither Ronaldo, nor his agent Jorge Mendes, had been informed of this. Some of the world’s biggest clubs were circling.

At half-time of the friendly, Ferguson told his trusted kitman Albert Morgan to find chief executive Peter Kenyon and bring him down to the dressing room area.

When Kenyon arrived, the message was blunt: “We are not leaving this ground until we have that boy signed.”

United’s players now knew all about Ronaldo’s talent but as they sat waiting to leave for home, they had no idea of the discussions taking place in the bowels of the stadium.

Ferguson’s pitch to the player navigated the tricky balance of telling him he was brilliant and perfect for United and cautioning him it would be too much to start every game immediately.

It was the start of an enduring relationship which means Ronaldo still refers to the 81-year-old as his “father in football”, despite his ill-fated return to Old Trafford which came to a disappointing and controversial end in December.

‘He was unmarkable at times’

Cristiano Ronaldo gets past Lee Naylor of Wolves in a game in 2003
Cristiano Ronaldo came off the bench in his first two Manchester United games – against Bolton and Wolves

Ferguson stuck to his word following Ronaldo’s arrival. He put him on the bench – for two games.

In fairness, it would be three years before United’s coaching staff turned him into a world-beater, ensuring those famed stepovers turned into consistent game-changing contributions.

Hunt was the first Premier League full-back tasked with trying to deal with Ronaldo’s quick feet – and would not be the last to struggle.

“I was fortunate in the sense I had just had a full pre-season training with Jay-Jay Okocha,” said Hunt.

“He was also known for skills and would do a couple of stepovers, so I knew how it worked.

“But Ronaldo could do more, six or seven on the bounce it felt like. And he could go with both feet, which was even more of a challenge. He could also cross with both feet and shoot with both feet.

“I was in a catch-22 situation. My main focus was to watch the ball and keep him away from the goal. For the first five minutes I did that, for the last 17 he was all over the place. He was unmarkable at times.

“He was doing all these stepovers and I was thinking ‘how can one person do that?’ – I thought he was going left and he would go right. I thought he was going down the line and he would check back.

“Growing up through school, there were two or three of us who were the best. When I signed professional forms, it was surreal training with a Bolton squad that had World Cup winners in it.

“But when you step on to a pitch with Manchester United players, it was the next level up.

“The more I played that first season, the more I understood what levels there were. I was intermediate, then there was top and above that, exceptional.”

‘We all knew what happened’

Cristiano Ronaldo stands next to Sir Alex Ferguson
Sir Alex Ferguson had a significant influence on Cristiano Ronaldo’s career

It is clear Ronaldo was in the exceptional category. But there were flaws that needed ironing out.

“In his early days, I accept, he showboated a lot,” said Ferguson, who also described the young Ronaldo as “a wee show-off desperate to convince everyone how good he was”.

The Scot recalled team-mates ridiculing the Portuguese at United’s Carrington training ground when he went down screaming in apparent agony.

It was part of the transition that saw Ronaldo go from scoring six goals in that first season, to 42 in 2007-08 when he helped United win the Premier League and Champions League and won the Ballon d’Or for the first time.

Given how the future was to unfold, Hunt accepts he made a mistake in not securing Ronaldo’s shirt to mark his own Premier League debut. Instead he went for England centre-half Ferdinand.

“A marvellous debut” was how Ferguson assessed Ronaldo’s first United appearance at the time.

More recently, he described it as “bloody fantastic” and a display that created a problem of not being able to hold a player of such talent back.

The mood in the Bolton dressing room was more reflective.

“It was surreal for me,” said Hunt. “The whole day was. It was my debut in front of so many people. I was gutted we had lost.

“But Sam [Allardyce, Bolton’s manager] didn’t go mad after the game. He said we were in the game for 75 minutes. As players, we just sat and looked at each other. [Assistant manager] Phil Brown shrugged his shoulders and smiled.

“We all knew what had happened in those last 15 minutes. We couldn’t do anything about it.”

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