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SOCCER

Mike Phelan recalls young CR7: ‘We knew there was someone special there’

The former Manchester United coach remembers his first impressions of Cristiano Ronaldo, a player determined to become “the best in the world”.

Update:
Former coach recalls young Cristiano Ronaldo
Eddie KeoghREUTERS

Cristiano Ronaldo rose to become the best player on the planet during his first spell at Manchester United, winning three Premier League titles, the Champions League and the first of his five Ballon d’Or awards.

He thrived in the all-conquering United team of Sir Alex Ferguson and built his reputation as a relentless competitor, destined for the top.

In a recent interview with Sky Sports, former Manchester United coach Mike Phelan recalls working with CR7 during his two spells at Old Trafford. Phelan was Ferguson’s assistant when the Portuguese winger first arrived in England, and had returned to the club when a 36-year-old Ronaldo returned in 2021.

Cristiano Ronaldo pushed Sir Alex Ferguson's Manchester United to the pinnacle of club football.
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Cristiano Ronaldo pushed Sir Alex Ferguson's Manchester United to the pinnacle of club football.

Phelan recalled that Ronaldo’s determination to better himself was evident from the very start.

“The first time, the challenging part was that Cristiano came to Manchester United knowing in his own mind that he was going to be the best in the world,” Phelan said.

“We tried to integrate him into the team and he responded brilliantly. His work ethic and practice was fantastic and it rubbed off on the players. They knew there was someone special there.”

Ronaldo would “challenge” coaches at Manchester United

Phelan became Ferguson’s assistant in 2008 after eight years working with United’s reserve team. He described Ronaldo as having a “really good personality, hard-working and challenging,” but admitted that he could be demanding.

He challenged me as a coach, Carlos Queiroz as a coach and Sir Alex as a manager. But that’s good because it takes you to another level.”

Cristiano Ronaldo won the Champions League with Manchester United in 2008.
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Cristiano Ronaldo won the Champions League with Manchester United in 2008.Matthew PetersManchester United via Getty Imag

He added that the forward’s ambitious was obvious from the very start and he was not surprised to see Ronaldo move on to Real Madrid after a hugely successive six years with United.

Phelan explained: “When you deal with top, top people, it’s about them and where they can finish and where they can get to. They want to look back and go ‘wow, that was successful’.”

Ronaldo was frustrated with the “standards” on United return

After leaving the dominant Manchester United side of Ferguson, both Phelan and Ronaldo returned to Old Trafford during the managerial stint of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. Despite some successes the club had fallen considerably from it’s Champions League-winning peak and Phelan revealed that Ronaldo could be a demanding personality in the changing room.

“The second time round, he came in a lot older and a lot more opinionated, strong-willed,” Phelan said.

“He still had massively high standards and was terrific to work with. But I’d probably say a tougher mindset. He had been at Man Utd, he had been Portugal’s ever-present, he had been at Madrid.”

During his second spell at Old Trafford Cristiano Ronaldo often cut a frustrated figure.
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During his second spell at Old Trafford Cristiano Ronaldo often cut a frustrated figure. JOHN SIBLEYAction Images via Reuters

For Phelan that mentality was a boost for the struggling side, but he admitted that Ronaldo’s ambitious nature did cause issues within the squad.

“I liked it because he didn’t want his standards to drop, he wanted other people’s standards to come up,” Phelan explained.

“I remember certain times when he pushed and pushed hard, and he didn’t get much reaction or much response. And there was frustration.”