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Why it’s time for Ronaldo and United to part ways

Nostalgia is a hell of a drug...

Brighton & Hove Albion v Manchester United - Premier League Photo by David Horton - CameraSport via Getty Images

The sacoglossa sea slug is an animal that decapitates itself in order to survive. That’s right. scientists believe they do this because they can detect when they have a particularly nasty cade of parasites infesting the body.

According to one leading scientist, “If a sea slug is overburdened by parasites, it can’t devote energy to reproduction. And living to reproduce is the reason why any animal exists.” After the head is severed from the body, the slug regenerates, is born anew, and goes about its purpose in the world.

So… let’s talk about Cristiano Ronaldo.

Former Manchester United manager, and bona fide legend, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, has apparently recently claimed he regrets ever signing his old teammate prior to last season. You remember the drama; CR7 was all set to head over to the blue side of Manchester and play for Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City. Only an 11th hour intervention by Sir Alex Ferguson and, to a greater or lesser degree, depending on who you believe, former strike partner Wayne Rooney, allowed United to snatch their former player from the clutches of their cross-town rivals.

Amazing! Incredible! Our prodigal son was coming home!

On that sunny September afternoon when he eviscerated Newcastle, running riot and scoring his hat trick in a 4-1 win, we were all on top of the world. Genius, wasn’t it, bringing him back? All that was left was to count down the days until we once again hoisted the Premier League trophy, laughing at crying City fans as we did so. what could possibly go wrong?

Well, everything, as it turned out.

Somehow, a rot began to set in amongst the team, a poison that led to a bitterly divided dressing room, subpar performances, woeful results and, in the end (of one kind – there was till much worse to come) Solskjaer losing his job, a sad ending for a much beloved figure at the club. Naturally, an autopsy was requested. Gossip hounds began to dig, kicking up rumours of a rift between Ronaldo and stumbling club captain Harry Maguire. The locker room turned toxic, it seems, split into two distinct camps; those who sided with one of the best players ever to play the game, and those who sided with the defender ‘affectionately’ known as ‘slabhead.’

As the worst season in living memory wound interminably on (seriously, some weekends it felt like it would never end) a curious thing began to happen; Ronaldo kept banging in the goals as the team behind him began playing worse and worse. Singlehandedly, went the narrative, he was keeping these mediocre bums afloat when they should all have been shining his boots. Heroic performances on special champions league nights (that heart thumping, head bursting, earth shaking 95th minute winner against Villareal at Old Trafford comes particularly to mind) were proof if it were needed that United were lucky to have him back. Where would they be, many people asked, if it wasn’t for him?

Well, where indeed? Before he was lured back to the club where he made his name, United had made Jadon Sancho the marquee signing off the off season. He was to be the jewel in the crown of what was now a young, pacy, attacking team hungry for success and bursting with energy. Hopes were high, improvements had been made to a squad that finished second the season before. Right before we were ready to go, engines revving up for the start of the race, Ronaldo was parachuted in at the last minute, and all the energy seemed to seep out of the car. It was like a Ferrari driver raring to start the race at Monaco, eyes on the lights and the chequered flag, about to put his foot to the floor before being told ‘hold on, we’ve got another, even better, idea to tweak the engine.’

Just like that, focus is lost. You go from everyone knowing their role to chaos and uncertainty spreading through the team. A player like Ronaldo doesn’t cause ripples, he causes tsunamis his presence alone changes everything.

Now the hierarchy has to be shuffled about, everyone has to scramble for new positions. Sancho in particular seemed to have had his confidence smashed to pieces. Here he had come in with promises and clearly laid out plans for how the club were going to utilise him, and now all that had been thrown into disarray at the last minute, leaving him out in the cold. Ronaldo rode back into town, and everyone else had to move one inch to the right to make room.

Right away, you sensed an awkwardness between Ronaldo and Solskjaer. Initially, I thought it was due to the rather embarrassing situation of an old team mate now being Cristiano’s boss. Now, though, in light of Solskjaer’s recent comments, it feels like something else. Ronaldo, Solskjaer is said to have intimidated, never really fit with what he had hoped to do at the club (Certainly, he never fit with what his successor wanted to do either i.e. press the opposition, you know, at least sometimes). Solskjaer had a young squad who no doubt looked up to him and whose respect the boss clearly had. Then, in comes Ronnie. With most fans, even Sir Alex Ferguson, pushing to get him back, how could Solskjaer say ‘no’? Now the young player son the team are unsure who to give their undivided attention to, who to listen to, who to follow. Of Solskjaer they were no doubt respectful; of Ronaldo they were over awed. They had grown up, after all, playing as him on FIFA, following his every move. Just who was the boss, now?

Mixed signals were everywhere. Bruno Fernandes, for one, had been cast up until that point as the club’s saviour, compared (ludicrously, in my opinion, for no-one compares to the great man – let’s not get sacrilegious, here) to Eric Cantona. Now, the real saviour had apparently arrived. Where did that leave Fernandes? Trying to get warm in the cold of Ronaldo’s shadow, right alongside a still disorientated Jadon Sancho, that’s where. Ronaldo’s fellow Portuguese start lost confidence, lost form, was lost. He and everybody else.

While Ronaldo was scoring goal after goal, nobody seemed to be paying attention to the organism that was dying behind him. Sure, he could still do it, sure, he was a marvel, sure, he was one of the best of all time. But what about everybody else? They had seemingly been left behind, dragged around behind the CR7 hype machine like so much dead weight, there to merely make up the numbers. United were winning because of Ronaldo, weren’t they? Maybe. Or maybe the body was being sacrificed so that the head could thrive.

It was all very well that he was garnishing his goals records and gaining the plaudits he so richly craved, but somewhere back there, trailing in his dust, were his teammates, despondent and adrift. His landing in the boat had cast the team all at sea. There was no time to properly integrate him and readjust the battle plan. Quite clearly, there was a great imbalance now, on the pitch and off it.

Someone who was supposed to be a role model to the young squad, helping to bring them on, showing them how a true great did it, was in fact rumoured to be a negative force in training, losing his patience and his temper with his mere mortal teammate’s, forcing them to cower in his presence. If he was not exactly a bully, he wasn’t a brother, either, the nurturing hand they all needed. The great Class of ’92 often talk about how they were in awe of Eric Cantona, sneakily watching him on the training pitch, itching for his attention, desperate to be called on to help him kick the ball around for a while. All of them talk about how great he was with them, how he inspired them to work harder, care more, look after themselves. It was a team sport, after all. Cantona was raising the levels of the team. Ronaldo was apparently more interested himself.

The younger players apparently became, if not scared of him, certainly wary. They feared making a mistake and drawing his wrath. Being ridiculed in front of millions right there on the pitch. Nerves set in. How well do you think a young man can play football when he’s quaking in his boots? Check most tape from last season for your answer.

I have no doubt Ronaldo is one of the best players of all time. Of course he is. I have no doubt that he is one of the greatest goal scorers in history. That’s self-evident. What is also self-evident, though, is that he long ago grew too big for his custom made, epigram boots. Just look at his histrionics when substituted on a miserable night away to Brentford. The sight of Ralf Rangnick leaving his seat to go and explain to a furious Ronaldo, in full view of the television camera, why he had decided to take him off, left me with my jaw to the floor. Imagine Sir Alex Ferguson doing that! Had Ronaldo pulled that kind of stunt with the boss, he’d have been lucky to escape Brentford Community Stadium with both eyes. Rangnick was castrated in the eyes of everyone watching that night, emasculated, stripped of all power and authority. He was rendered a lame duck. Nothing good could, or would, come of that. it was clear now who was really in charge.

Of course, I understand Ronaldo is passionate, and perhaps he has no patience for the mediocrity that has clearly set in around Old Trafford since he’s been away. I get that. I understand it. I even agree with him. What I don’t agree with is his reaction to it. He could have hoisted his team up to help him. Instead, I get the impression that he would much rather do it on his own. The CR7 show. Maybe I’m wrong, but everything we saw from his body language, form his head shaking, from his storming down tunnels after disappointing losses, doesn’t seem to suggest I am. His second stint will have to go down as a missed opportunity to revolutionise the club and help steer it towards a new golden age, something that would have enriched his legacy far more than a few more goals added to his already monstrous tally ever will.

Perhaps he is at an age and a level where he doesn’t feel he has time to help everybody else. If that is the case, he never should have come back to a young team like Manchester United. Manchester United, in turn, never should have signed him just to poach him away from Manchester City. It’s a doomed love affair. Ask anyone who ever separated from a great love and got back together with them later in life how it all wound up. Usually, it doesn’t end well. You can never go back, they say, and more often than not it’s true. Ronaldo was almost as formidable this time as he was the first time, but he didn’t have the supporting cast around him he did back then.

Magic and lightning rarely strike twice, and never in the same place. He gave me, and all of us, some more incredible moments to add to our memories of him this past season, but ultimately the experiment seems in vain. If the team isn’t winning, it doesn’t matter to me what one individual can do. No one player is bigger than the club.

Without him next season, I think we see a more balanced, more confident team, one that finds its feet, together. And plays, together. Erik ten Hag already strikes me as someone who will not be getting off his bench to patiently explain to a seething Ronaldo why he should stop slamming his boots on the floor and listen to him. Maybe better to part way now before a serious clash of personalities decimates another season. Should it happen again, Ronaldo will not come off the winner, and his legacy will be slightly tarnished as a result. Perhaps we should leave it here, then, this article and the love affair with Cristiano. Perhaps It’s time to call it a day and move on, for the good of all involved.

It’s time to decapitate the head, so that the organism may continue to live.