Liverpool were targeting Cristiano Ronaldo before he joined Manchester United.
When it comes to Cristiano Ronaldo signing for Manchester United, the famous story of that friendly in Lisbon is quite well known. What isn’t common knowledge though is how closely Liverpool were monitoring the situation too.
To begin with, Rio Ferdinand previously recalled his first memory of seeing Ronaldo play while taking part in COPA90‘s ‘Stay Home. Play Together’ YouTube series.
The former Leeds United and West Ham defender said that John O’Shea almost needed an oxygen tank after first crossing paths with a teenage Ronaldo in the pre-season friendly with his boyhood club, Sporting Lisbon.
“We played against Sporting Lisbon to open their stadium. I played and it’s a funny story because John O’Shea played right-back against him and we didn’t know who Ronaldo was. We missed out on signing Ronaldinho so we were a bit deflated at the time. So we get in at half-time and John O’Shea must have had an oxygen tank next to him. He was in bits. He was sitting there [demonstrates heavy panting].
“We said, ‘Sheasy, get close to him!’ and he just couldn’t even answer us. And, to be fair, me, Butty and Scholesy were going, ‘Mate, this kid is unbelievable, we’ve got to sign him.’ We got onto the coach and we’re delayed by about an hour and a half and everyone’s going: ‘What’s going on? We’ve got to get back to England’ and they were doing the deal upstairs to try and sign him. It was a mad performance and you saw straight away that will be a world’s best player.”
Alex Ferguson had scouted Ronaldo for months before that match but that performance sealed the deal.
Later that night, Ferguson and David Gill would keep the Manchester United team waiting on the bus because they weren’t leaving the stadium without Ronaldo’s signature.
The rest is history as the Portuguese international joined Manchester United in a £12m deal in 2003, going on to win three Premier League titles and the Champions League before sealing a world-record move to Real Madrid in 2009.
However, what might not be known is just how closely Liverpool was monitoring the development of the prodigious talent at Sporting Lisbon too.
During a recent interview with The Athletic, former Liverpool assistant manager Phil Thompson discussed the moment he and boss Gerard Houllier “almost choked” after missing out on Cristiano Ronaldo to Man Utd.
Back in 2003, Liverpool had identifed Ronaldo’s potential and in The Athletic’s report, Thompson says that he “went for dinner in Porto with the football agent Tony Henry to discuss how much it would take to persuade Sporting to sell.”
He adds: “I can still remember Tony’s exact words. It was all very nice and relaxed. ‘It’s £4 million and it can be paid over the four years of his contract, so £1 million a year’. That seemed very reasonable. Then I asked about the salary and Tony told me it was £1 million a year, net.
“For an 18-year-old, that was a lot of money. But Tony said it was negotiable and I thought, ‘Jesus, these lot are really trying to push him out of the door’. We were keen, the boy was obviously a great talent,” he said.
Liverpool were monitoring Cristiano Ronaldo closely– Houllier even travelled to the Toulon tournament to see Ronaldo up close – but the Liverpool management got a shock when they discovered that Ronaldo agreed on a deal with their arch-rivals Man Utd.
“I will never forget what happened next. On the Tuesday morning, we were having lunch at the training ground and it came up on the yellow strap on Sky Sports, ‘Manchester United have signed Cristiano Ronaldo for £12.2 million’. Gerard and myself almost choked on our food. I can remember Gerard jumping up and saying, ‘What the hell has gone on there?” said Thompson.
This stumbling block over wages is also supported by a separate interview that Houllier gave to the Liverpool Echo a few years ago.
During that interview, Houllier defended the decision not to sign Ronaldo.
The French manager cited Ronaldo’s wage demands, potential dressing room unrest, and the fact that they had Harry Kewell in the team already as the major factors against signing the Portuguese star.
“I saw him in the Toulon Under 21 tournament and we went for him. But we had a wage scale and we weren’t paying the sort of salary he wanted. Then Manchester United played a friendly against Sporting Lisbon and all their boys said to Sir Alex Ferguson: ‘You have to sign him’. I agreed with not breaking the wage structure. I thought it would cause problems in our dressing room,” said Houllier.
He adds: “Maybe we would have won the title with Ronaldo, but we had Harry Kewell, who was outstanding at the time and was very hungry but got a bad injury.”
What might have been for Liverpool, Manchester United, and Cristiano Ronaldo.