Cristiano Ronaldo made his Manchester United debut on August 16th, 2003. He came on as a substitute for Nicky Butt in the 60th minute of United’s Premier League encounter with Bolton Wanderers.
Ronaldo had only signed with United a few days prior, completing a £12.24 million transfer from Sporting Lisbon. While Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson had been monitoring Ronaldo for a few months, calling him “one of the most exciting young players I’ve ever seen”, Ferguson moved quickly to sign the Portuguese winger after United and Sporting played in a friendly, and the United players urged him to go through with the transfer.
With United leading 1-0, Ronaldo entered the match to a standing ovation from the Old Trafford crowd. The first Portuguese player to ever appear for United, Ronaldo sauntered onto the pitch wearing the famous number seven shirt untucked, hair gelled and bleached and opting for long sleeves in August.
With only half an hour to go, you could forgive Bolton fullback Nicky Hunt for thinking he might have an easy assignment to end the match — marking this lanky 18-year-old making his Premier League debut.
Ronaldo’s first contribution was to get absolutely crunched by Hunt. However, that was the last time Hunt would ever get the better of United’s new ace. After a beautiful turn to escape from trouble, Ronaldo then went on a trademark run with step overs and pace. He breezes through two defenders before a slip denies him the chance of setting up Paul Scholes.
The rest of Ronaldo’s contributions include beating multiple defenders and drawing a penalty, sending in multiple inch-perfect crosses to Ruud van Nistelrooy and dribbling past FIVE Bolton players before being cynically taken down by Ivan Campo, who’s shown a yellow card for his troubles. This leads the broadcaster announcer to say, “Dear me, he’s got it all.”
Finally, Ronaldo destroys Ricardo Gardner with a flurry of step overs and sheer pace. Gardner retaliates moments later by scything down Ronaldo and receiving a yellow card. Ronaldo, rather than being frightened by this physical treatment on his debut, steps up and delivers the perfect ball from the resulting free kick.
All in all, Ronaldo’s debut was sensational. The fact that he’s turned 30 minutes into a six-minute highlight reel says it all. George Best hailed it as “undoubtedly the most exciting debut” he’d ever seen.