For more than thirty minutes after the game, thousands of supporters remained inside Old Trafford, particularly congregated towards the tunnel near the dressing room.
In this post-Covid world, players and managers now do their post-match interviews on the pitch in front of broadcaster’s interview panels. Those Manchester United fans grew so impatient that they began to stamp their feet and chant ‘We want Ronaldo’, at one point for well over a minute.
This was no rock concert, where the paying spectators were demanding an encore. It was a football match, with no next part, but the fans were simply desperate to pay one more special congratulations to their hero.
They finally got their wish when Cristiano Ronaldo made a grand entrance when it seemed he might not; those fans would have to wait until they left the ground to discover the words he actually said, which made them all the more emotional again.
“I belong to Manchester,” he said, and after the perfect afternoon homecoming, it’s fair to say Manchester belongs to him too.
Some things are bigger than football. Manchester United played Newcastle last season here but it was, with all due respect, just one league fixture of 38 with a result that probably doesn’t come easily to mind for most (3-1, in case you’re wondering, with a decisive goal from Dan James).
This was Eric Cantona’s return in 1995 but, if possible, with even greater hysteria. Cantona, like Ronaldo, belonged to Manchester, and summed up the era perfectly. Ronaldo, however, has belonged to the world for 12 years, and in that time established himself as arguably the greatest ever.
Ronaldo shirts outnumbered others by 10 to 1 by fans flocking into Old Trafford, wondering if their old and new idol would play. There wasn’t really any doubt. Even his emergence from the tunnel for the warm-up was an event, fans delaying getting one more beer or United hotdog just to be there to give him the welcome home.
And they repeated it all again 25 minutes later, almost as if they were disbelieving still that he would emerge from the tunnel wearing that red shirt.
He did, and suddenly the real business of a football match took over.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer played him, as expected, as a central forward, though of course these days it’s a fluid formation that allows for movement. If there was a debate about how United would play, it was regarding the partner of Paul Pogba in midfield, and that position was given to Nemanja Matic over Donny van de Beek. Matic showed the plusses and minuses with classy passing and the slower legs which often meant he was caught out of position when Newcastle sprung into counter attacks.
The visitors, for their part, had no interest in being part of the carnival. Goalkeeper Woodman seemed determined to have the majority of the ball, remarkably time-wasting twice in the first ten minutes. It was a repeated offence that received no punishment or even real warning from the referee, but probably prolonged the half by five minutes. Two were added on.
The stoppages caused an anxious frustration. Ronaldo, the player everyone wanted to see, hung on the periphery of the game. One of those famous stepovers and a shot into the side netting. One moment where he hung high in the air at a corner but the ball went much higher.
Because of the time-wasting, United were more urgent with their need to build attacks, which meant Newcastle could counter with the pace of their attack and lots of space to run into. Once or twice they should have done better.
United went close too. Varane saw a header bounce just the wrong side of the post. If Sancho had been able to put meaningful touch on a Fernandes effort, he might have been the new signing celebrating his first goal.
But on days like this you have two options for the headlines : one where the script seems written, one where it does not. It has to be a binary conclusion because all else is hectic.
Just before half-time, Woodman made a howler. Mason Greenwood, with goals in every league game before this, cut in from the right and had an effort. The goalkeeper spilled it – Ronaldo had anticipated the mistake.
He followed in and had his moment – many fans had already left for their half-time beer, hoping they’d see it on the big screens on the concourse. They were as lucky as Woodman – the screens are not playing at the moment due to COVID.
On any other day, there would be some sympathy for the goalkeeper, but he had comfortably made himself an antagonist.
It made for an open second half but it seemed as though it may not be when Manquillo equalised. Maguire, trying to force the issue for a second, committed high up the pitch and was outpaced. Shaw was pulled over to the left-hand side – Varane was caught as one against two and was helpless.
Just when it seemed as though we might get a repeat of the frustrating opening 45, the game’s big moment arrived – Shaw broke from the back with a run through the middle. Magpies bodies were everywhere.
Ronaldo had moved into the left channel. It was the sort of day where if he was free, you played him the ball. Shaw obliged. So did Ronaldo – he accelerated past his defender, making a mockery of the career obituaries that have been so gleefully penned in the preceding days, and fired home a shot of power through Woodman’s legs.
That was the winning goal.
This time Newcastle had no response and United were able to kill the game off. De Gea started one attack with a long kick – United attacked in numbers, and, as the visiting defenders tried to set their position, Bruno Fernandes took advantage of the space in front of him to hit a quite magnificent goal from fully 20 yards.
In injury time, Paul Pogba fed Jesse Lingard, who showed nice feet in the box and made it four – a reminder that he might still have a job to play. As a forward player who likes to be busy, one wonders if Lingard might even be a more natural choice to play minutes alongside Ronaldo, as one imagines Sancho and Greenwood might have to learn to be a little more like Tevez and Rooney in order to create the space their new team-mate clearly thrives in.
There are functional issues. Solskjaer said he wanted a team that looked like Man Utd and they did in sparks but not often enough. The midfield did better than against Wolves but never controlling in the way one might like, even though Matic and Pogba had decent games individually.
And we don’t know, still, if it will be a case of Ronaldo’s individualism elevating United above these problems or if he will gel to form part of a super front line.
At Old Trafford against Newcastle it seemed like the former, and to be honest, that’s not a bad thing at the moment. The problems are there, nobody can pretend different, but goals mask problems, and Ronaldo – as he has for over a decade – still seems a guarantee of goals.
Today he was clinical and his second goal was main event stuff. Ronaldo’s return had the headline moment that Cantona’s did in 1995. Supporters will remember this one as a special day in United history, even if, just like that day in 1995, there was the suggestion there is still work to do.
The final whistle went and United’s fans were still not done with their returning hero. He’s not done with them. It was fitting that on his return, he helped them go back to the top of the table.
How permanent that is, time will tell, but the hysteria of Ronaldo-mania shows no sign of subsiding any time soon.
De Gea 6
Van De Beek