Liverpool boss Gerard Houllier "almost choked" when United signed Ronaldo
Ronaldo became the world's best player at Old Trafford, but he could easily have been plying his trade at Anfield instead
The story of how Cristiano Ronaldo arrived in English football in the summer of 2003 has been widely told.
As a teenage Ronaldo shone for Sporting Lisbon in a preseason friendly against them, Manchester United's players pleaded with Sir Alex Ferguson to bring him to Old Trafford. Unbeknown to his players, Ronaldo was already on Ferguson's radar before a ball had been kicked that night. In his autobiography, he revealed how United had been monitoring him for over a year after a tip-off from Carlos Queiroz.
The opening 45 minutes of that friendly game, though, were enough to convince Ferguson that United needed to make a move. At half-time, he ordered chief executive Peter Kenyon to promptly arrange a deal with Sporting. A matter of days later, Ronaldo was a United player, beginning a glorious six-year spell at the club.
Had United not faced Sporting that night, things might have turned out very differently for Ronaldo. It's little secret that other clubs were also weighing up a move for him at the time, one of them being United's great rivals, Liverpool.
"I'd rather shoot you than sell you to that guy"
It's 12 years since @Cristiano played the first game of his final season at @ManUtd
Weeks earlier, Sir Alex Ferguson reached an agreement with him that only a select few were aware of at the time.https://t.co/YcDb9ySwo8
— FootballJOE (@FootballJOE) September 23, 2020
Speaking to The Athletic, Phil Thompson, who was assistant to manager Gerard Houllier at the time, has revealed how a move to Anfield was a very real possibility for Ronaldo.
Thompson had been in attendance as Sporting faced Porto in the final game of their 2002/03 Primeira Liga season and was impressed enough to ask agent Tony Henry how much it would cost to buy the youngster. A fee of £4m, spread over four seasons, seemed incredibly reasonable for such a young talent, and Liverpool were undeterred by wage demands of £1m-a-year.
"For an 18-year-old, that was a lot of money," Thompson admits. "But Tony said it was negotiable and I thought, 'Jesus, these lot really are trying to push him out of the door'. We were keen, the boy was obviously a great talent."
Understandably, Liverpool held off making an official move until Houllier had the chance to watch Ronaldo in action for Portugal's Under-20s at the Toulon tournament. Should a compromise have been reached over his wages, Liverpool were confident of finalising a deal.
It was around this time Sporting welcomed United to Lisbon.
"I will never forget what happened next," Thompson continues. "On the Tuesday morning, we were having lunch at the training ground and it came up on the yellow strap on Sky Sports, 'Manchester United have signed Cristiano Ronaldo for £12.2m'.
"Gerard and myself almost choked on our food. I can remember Gerard jumping up and saying, 'What the hell has gone on there?'"
Under Ferguson, Ronaldo blossomed into a Ballon d'Or winner, leading United to Champions League glory in his fifth season in Manchester.
How differently things might have turned out had he moved to Anfield instead.