Cristiano Ronaldo was subjected to a brutal ‘no foul’ rule during training sessions in his earliest years at Manchester United, a measure brought in by assistant manager Walter Smith in a bid to toughen up the Portuguese youngster and make him pass the ball more.
As a teenager, Ronaldo had a reputation for favouring flashy tricks over end product. It was clear he was incredibly talented, yet his decision making was infuriating for teammates and fans alike.
“You didn’t know where he was going to be defensively, you didn’t know when he was going to release the ball, the players in the middle of the box didn’t know when he was going to cross it. It was erratic,” Former teammate Gary Neville told Sky Sports earlier this week.
“But they had great faith in him, Sir Alex Ferguson and Carlos Queiroz. They believed in him, they thrust him forward ahead of players who potentially had greater reputations at the time and he eventually developed into something that absolutely brilliant.”
Smith was famously a revered manager in his own right, having found fame as the boss who oversaw six of Rangers’ Scottish title in their ‘Nine in a Row’, as well as leading Everton for four years in the Premier League. He later also enjoyed a successful stint as Scotland head coach.
But in the final two months of the 2003/04 season, in between other jobs, Smith was called upon by Ferguson to join United as his right-hand man.
Fletcher noted that Ronaldo struggled early on at United when it came to decision making – perhaps understandable for a raw teenager – and was told a ‘few home truths’ in the dressing room from time to time. His ‘big personality’ was a major part of surviving that.
What Smith then implemented – for everyone, but in Fletcher’s opinion aimed at Ronaldo – pushed him on to the next level.
“Walter came in and he basically decided to not give fouls in training. I know it was definitely for Ronaldo,” Fletcher told The Lockdown Tactics, via the Daily Mail.
“Before, you wouldn’t get soft fouls but you would get a foul – he’d be taking the mick, draw a foul, win it, laugh, get the ball. So Walter just decided there were no fouls now in training. Ronaldo for two weeks was going bananas.
“Basically, the lads tackled you anyway at United, but if you knew there wasn’t going to be a foul...honestly, it’s amazing how quickly Ronnie started moving the ball and running because he knew he wasn’t going to get a foul, so there was no point hanging on to it.
“And then he started to score more goals and get in more goalscoring positions. Listen, it’s a small little thing but I feel the second half of the season under Walter Smith he made a big step. Don’t get me wrong, he made massive progressions off the back of that."
Fletcher recalled that even though Ronaldo was ‘raging’ about it for a couple of weeks, he very quickly accepted it and adapted his game, ultimately for his own betterment.
“All of a sudden [he] started taking one and two touch and passing and running more without the ball, and started scoring more goals…I think something clicked in him,” Fletcher said.
Source : 90min