October 22, 2021

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The forgotten warning that Cristiano Ronaldo delivered on during his Manchester United debut

A scrawny teenager, with just a handful of senior appearances under his belt, took to the Old Trafford turf to make his Premier League debut.

Tall, lanky, right-footed, not many knew what to expect as they leaned forward in anticipation. There was a feeling in the air that a paradigm shift was imminent.

From that day forward the very course of football history would forever be altered.

That debutant’s name? Nicky Hunt.

Oh, a little known winger by the name of Cristiano Ronaldo played his first game for Manchester United that day as well.

It was the opening day of the 2003/04 Premiership season and reigning champions United were getting their ultimately unsuccessful defence underway against Bolton Wanderers.

Although United had won the title for the fourth time in five seasons, it had still been a difficult and transitional summer for Sir Alex Ferguson’s side, with David Beckham departing for Real Madrid and Juan Sebastian Veron heading south to join Chelsea.

The last thing United would have wanted on the opening day was to face a combative Bolton side who, under Sam Allardyce, had been victorious on their last two trips to Old Trafford and had taken four points off them the season previous.

It once again proved to be a difficult afternoon as the energetic, robust but understatedly skilful Bolton side made life difficult. This time at least, Ryan Giggs had put United ahead in the first-half but the Whites were well and truly still in the game, with Kevin Davies and Kevin Nolan missing great chances.

But in the 61st minute that all changed as a teenager from Madeira, wearing the iconic No.7 he inherited from Beckham as well as all the expectation that comes with it, sauntered on to the pitch.

Twenty-nine minutes later the full-time whistle blew and United had won 4-0.

We all sat in the changing room after the game and I remember Phil Brown looking at me as if to say you’ve done well, great debut, and he just smiled,” former Bolton right-back Hunt, who had the misfortune of coming up against Ronaldo on his own Premier League debut, tells the Manchester Evening News.

“I looked at him and he raised his eyebrow as if to say: ‘there’s a real player in that other dressing room there, everyone’s seen it today.’

“I think we were surprised at just how exciting he was, his little tricks and flicks but he would get at you. What wingers don’t do now is they don’t run at you, they don’t want to get crosses in anymore.

Gone are the days with the wingers when you just kick and run because they are the most exciting ones because when the crowd see a winger get past a full-back and whipping balls in, that’s what they want to see.

Bolton’s players, as well as the 67,647 in attendance that day, couldn’t be blamed for being surprised as Ronaldo’s first appearance in a United shirt came just three days after he’d signed from Sporting.

In the days long before YouTube, WhyScout or just Twitter gifs, Ronaldo was largely an unknown quantity to fans and players alike, despite impressing in a pre-season friendly against United, which made his debut all the more awe-inspiring.

The only warning Bolton were given was from Ronaldo’s former teammate in Lisbon, Brazilian striker Mario Jardel, who had moved to the Reebok in the same summer.

“Jardel tells me he (Ronaldo) is an unbelievable, fantastic footballer,” Allardyce revealed in a pre-match press conference. “Who knows how long it will take to get him ready for the Premiership or if he’ll be involved tomorrow.”

Ronaldo began on the bench but he would go on to be heavily involved in the match.

“No one really knew anything about him did they?” he says. “He signed as a young kid from Sporting Lisbon and we certainly didn’t know anything about him.

“We just knew that he could be starting his first game and if he did then it would be on my side so I was looking forward to the game, I love playing football, and instead of him I had Giggs on my side for 60 minutes and Ronaldo for 30.

“I don’t think it could have got any worse for me that day!”

Although specific knowledge of Ronaldo was scarce, the excitement was palpable as he stepped up to the touchline, as Old Trafford raised to its feet in anticipation. “Hold on to your hats,” said the commentator.

Those hats could have been glued down, they still would have been blown off with what was to follow.

With blonde streaks in his hair, the 18-year-old replaced Nicky Butt but it was actually an auspicious start for Hunt in the battle.

The defender won the ball strongly with a sliding tackle on the halfway line on Ronaldo’s first touch, as the jitters briefly took hold, but the tide soon changed.

“I think I did snap him a couple of times early doors, which I really enjoyed,” Hunt remembers.

“I just love tackling, that was the mainstay of my game and as a defender that’s what keeps you in the team if you can tackle but the tackles I used to make years ago you wouldn’t get away with these days, I’d be sent off after about 10 minutes.”

The next time Ronaldo got on the ball he elegantly rolled it under his feet to turn and leave Hunt grasping for his shirt. It would get worse.

Ronaldo finally got the ball on the left flank with a bit of space to run into and the trademark step-overs were soon whipped out, leaving Hunt in knots on the floor and the Old Trafford crowd roaring in delight.

Then Ronaldo was fouled for the first of hundreds of times in a red shirt and it happened to be inside the penalty box.

Hunt had actually managed to get a rare foot on the ball but then Nolan dragged the winger down,

which earned him a slap of appreciation off the notoriously tough to please Roy Keane. The spot-kick was missed by Ruud van Nistelrooy, though.