Gary Neville has lifted the lid on former teammate Cristiano Ronaldo, reflecting that his own ideas on the game were changed by the current Real Madrid star.
In his Daily Mail column published on Sunday and ahead of Ronaldo’s return to Manchester to face City in the Champions League this midweek, former right-back Nevilla reflected on his initial frustration with the young Portuguese, during their first few seasons playing together at Manchester United.
“As someone who had played with David Beckham and Ryan Giggs, world-class players who worked up and down and did the ugly part of the game, playing with Cristiano Ronaldo was a constant frustration,” wrote Neville today.
“He would go wandering off to the left, to the right, up the middle; he was inconsistent; and he would cost us. I remember him giving the ball away at Chelsea in the Mourinho years and Chelsea scoring.
“He would win us a match but then we wouldn't see him for the next game. I remember snapping at him and going crazy once when he tried to over-complicate in front of goal, with some back-heel flick rather than a sidefoot to finish.”
However, the player won over Neville and his teammates after the 2006 World Cup and within two years had picked up the Ballon d’Or.
“He walked into the dressing room and I thought: ‘Jeez, what has happened to him over the summer?’,” continued the former England international, who now works as a Coach with The Three Lions.
“When he had come to the club he was this thin, wiry boy. Now he was a light-heavyweight. He'd been on the weights over the summer and it was like watching someone grow up in a matter of weeks. And what ensued for the next two years was astonishing.
“I can't believe anyone has ever seen anything as extraordinary in the Premier League. I know we have had Thierry Henry, Eric Cantona and Gianfranco Zola – and perhaps Henry in his prime came closest – but for two years this was a player on another planet, the best in the world.
“He would prey on the weak. He is an absolute bully, as Maicon found out for Manchester City in the Bernabeu this season.
“He sniffs blood, he will find the weakness in the back four. If he's not getting the left-back in the first 15 minutes, he'll switch to the right-back.
“If he's not getting the right-back, he'll switch to the left centre-back. He'll find someone in your back four who is weak and doesn't like defending one on one and against pace and power. His skill, strength and speed were incredible.”
Neville reflected on his form from 2006 to 2008 in particular at the club, suggesting that it was comparable to that of the Manchester side’s greatest players in its history. It was also form that saw the defender change his perception.
“It got to the point that as right-back in that 2006-07 season I never complained if he could go off for 30 minutes and leave me two on one.
“He completely changed my opinions about the game. I'd always been taught that I must have a right winger in front of me. But I knew he'd go and win us the match. Darren Fletcher would say that we'd have to work around him, because he'd always do more harm than opposing players he was leaving free to go forward.
“As a 27-year-old at the time, an experienced figure, I was expecting to tell this 21-year-old how it was. And he was telling me something completely different. I'd been playing with my blinkers on for years but he made me open my eyes to different ways of playing the game.
“I'll never forget coming in training one day when the session was eight hard runs but, for the last two, he seemed to be taking it easy. He simply said: 'Too much water kills the plant.' Even today I remember those words.
“All the premeditated tactical theories I had learned about getting and staying in your shape, and tracking back with your runner, all the things that had been drummed into me, were thrown out over those two years because we had a player who could make up his own rules with the blessing of his teammates.
“He has helped to redefine the game by creating a new breed of flexible forward.”