Gary Neville reveals how Cristiano Ronaldo transformed from frustrating idiot to all-time great

Steven Chicken
Gary Neville, Cristiano Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney having a lovely time together at Manchester United
Gary Neville, Cristiano Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney

Gary Neville admits he ‘lost faith’ with former Manchester United teammate Cristiano Ronaldo shortly after his arrival at the club – but when he finally caught up to the then-superior Wayne Rooney, it added up to ‘the best United team I’ve ever seen’.

Rooney hit the ground running at Manchester United following his move from Everton as a teenager in 2004, but Ronaldo – who had arrived from Sporting the year before – initially flattered to deceive and looked a far inferior player.

Gary Neville: ‘Cristiano Ronaldo frustrated Manchester United players’

However, while Rooney arrived with the barrel-shaped frame he would have for the rest of his career, Ronaldo was able to transform his body and mind from a lightweight idiot to an imposing Adonis with robot-like precision, eventually reaching and then surpassing Rooney’s levels.

Speaking to Trent Alexander-Arnold on The Overlap podcast, Neville said: “Rooney was almost like a man straight away from when he broke in. When he broke into the England team at sort of like 18, he was the best player in the team straight away; he was unbelievable, his decision-making, his power, his strength.”

Holding up his little finger, Neville added: “Ronaldo came, he was like that, quite scrawny, he’d not developed his body. His decision-making was erratic; if he should have crossed it he dribbled, if he should have dribbled he crossed it. 

“He always frustrated the players in the middle because he’d go to cross it and they’d make the run and then he’d turn back. He was all over the place like that and I actually lost faith with him.

“He wasn’t delivering in an attacking sense and he didn’t run back that much so he wasn’t really helping – whereas Becks (David Beckham), who had played there before, was already running back and doubling back, so I always had help. So it was quite frustrating.

Cristiano Ronaldo’s physical transformation took him to next level

“Then in 2006, that’s when [Portugal] knocked [England] out of the World Cup in Germany, and he scored the penalty. [Ronaldo] came back [to United], and all of a sudden his physique, his body, had changed.

“That season was when we first won the league [after] three years when we hadn’t won the league because of Mourinho (Chelsea) and Wenger (Arsenal).

“That season, just the transformation into this absolute machine…strong, I think he scored 35-40 goals.

“Wazza (Rooney) kept at that level, and when they were both at that level, probably 2006-09 when [Ronaldo] left, that was the best United team I’ve ever seen. You had Rooney-Ronaldo-Tevez up front, and you had Giggs, Scholes, Carrick…it was unbelievable. The movement, the speed, the power was frightening. 

“But then sort of Cristiano went to Madrid and carried on going [indicating upwards] that way, and Wazza started to sort of…at 27 he’d played for like 10 or 11 years already.

“Wayne was always going to have a shorter career, but when they were both together, 2006-09, they were brilliant.”

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