“He was immediately one of the hardest-working players at United.”
Keane was coming towards the end of his career when Ronaldo joined the club from Sporting Lisbon in 2003. The Irishman, however, instantly knew the 18-year-old was going to be a star.
He also helped foster the forward’s legendary winning mentality.
Roy Keane & Cristiano Ronaldo at Man United
Keane and Ronaldo first encountered each other during a now-famous pre-season game in 2003.
Man United played Sporting Lisbon in a friendly to open Sporting’s new stadium, and Ronaldo gave John O’Shea a torrid time in the match. The winger was so impressive that the United players pleaded with Ferguson to sign him.
“Sheasy ended up seeing the club doctor at half-time because he was having dizzy spells; he was being twisted inside-out,” Keane said in his second autobiography.
Ronaldo’s debut for Man United
Ferguson sealed the deal for the winger that night and he made his debut for the Red Devils a few weeks later at Old Trafford.
Ronaldo came off the bench in a 4-0 win over Bolton Wanderers on the opening day of the season and stole the show.
He gave Bolton the O’Shea treatment and had fans purring about his incredible potential.
Over the next few seasons, the Portuguese star transformed from a tricky, inconsistent winger, to a powerhouse forward and best player in the world.
Keane left Man United before Ronaldo hit his peak. The Irishman, however, knew from the player’s early days at Old Trafford that he was going to be a world-class footballer.
His first impression of Ronaldo proved extremely accurate.
Roy Keane’s first impressions of Cristiano Ronaldo
“I liked the lad straightaway. He had a nice presence about him, and a good attitude,” Keane writes in The Second Half, his second autobiography.
“What impressed me most was that he’d been given the option of staying in Lisbon for another year, on loan, but he said no; he’d come over to Manchester straightaway. I thought it was a good, brave decision – because he was only seventeen.
“After the first few days, watching him train, my reaction was, ‘This lad is going to be one of the world’s greatest players.’ I didn’t say it publicly, because I’d always be wary of building a player up too early – or knocking him down.”
“He was very likeable.”
“I was playing youth football for Rockmount, in Cork, at that age.”
Ronaldo’s work ethic and confidence also immediately impressed Keane.
“He looked like a player. You have to look the part, and he did. Zidane looked like a player – and Ronaldo looked like a player.
“The shape, the body language – they were there. A bit of arrogance, too. But he’d a nice way about him; he was very likeable.
“We forget that he was very heavily criticised when he first came on the scene. He was going down too quickly when tackled, his final product wasn’t good enough.
“But – again – he was only seventeen, a kid. I was playing youth football for Rockmount, in Cork, at that age.
“He was amazing. He was immediately one of the hardest-working players at United.
“Most of the players I knew worked hard, but Ronaldo had the talent on top of the work rate.”
“I always felt that football was his love.”
The former Man United captain also had no issue with Ronaldo’s vanity as he knew the player’s primary focus was always football.
“He was good-looking and he knew it,” Keane said.
“He was vain in that sense. At the mirror. He was a big lad, a big unit. I’d think, ‘Good on yeh.’ Looking at some of the other lads in front of the mirror, I’d think, ‘Yeh fuckin’ nugget.’ But Ronaldo had an innocence to him and a niceness.
“I don’t think he ever slackened off, or that he was ever more worried about the mirror than his game. I always felt that football was his love.”
Ronaldo on Keane
In 2017, when he won the Ballon d’Or for the fifth time, Ronaldo paid tribute to three of his former Man United teammates.
He thanked Keane, Rio Ferdinand and Ryan Giggs for helping him during his early years at Old Trafford. They were tough taskmasters, but they helped develop his winning mentality. Ronaldo wanted to entertain, but the United trio wanted to win.
They have all long-retired, but Ronaldo now embodies their mentality.
“Since I was 14, 15 or 16 years old I knew that I was different from other kids,” Ronaldo said.
“I did different things, I realised that I was good at Manchester United when I played with players like Giggs, Keane or Ferdinand. I had talent.
“The English mentality is different and those people helped me a lot to be what I am now. I have to thank my colleagues in Manchester.”
Although he could never have predicted that Ronaldo’s career would turn out as it has, Keane’s first impressions of the player proved very accurate.
Originally published on September 13, 2020.