Ronaldo 'changed the way' Neville views football
Gary Neville has claimed Cristiano Ronaldo changed the way he looked at football and regards himself as privileged to have been part of the same team.
Ronaldo will meet Manchester United for the first time since his £80million departure for Real Madrid when the European heavyweights square up in the Bernabeu Stadium tomorrow.
Neville will be there too, in his role as a TV pundit.
And, speaking in his capacity as a McDonald’s ambassador to publicise the 2013 FA Community Awards, the former United defender admits Ronaldo is a one-off.
“He changed my perception,” he said.
“Suddenly I didn’t have someone in front of me who would come back and double up on the left-winger.
“In those early years he used to go wandering off.
“He was told to play on the right by Sir Alex Ferguson and would end up on the left. That was unheard of.
“By the end of Ronaldo’s Manchester United career I was willing him not to chase back so he was free.
“We had a player who was beyond a level of talent I had ever seen. He made me realise you didn’t always need to be in your shape.”
Now in their fourth year, the FA Community Awards 2013, presented by McDonald’s, were set up to recognise the importance of grassroots football and reward the hard work of those involved.
Neville has committed his time to helping his mentor at United, Eric Harrison, visiting grassroots clubs involved in the awards programme and overseeing the coach of the year assessment process.
He will be visiting his old club, Bury Juniors, to drum up support for nominations for grassroots football in the local community, which can be made on www.mcdonalds.co.uk/kickstart with the national ceremony taking place at Wembley on August 11.
But Ronaldo will be the centre-piece of Neville’s week, having known since he watched the then raw teenager playing for Sporting Lisbon against United in a friendly 10 years ago he was a rare talent.
“He did certain things that night which were exceptional,” said Neville.
Nevertheless, Ronaldo was a frustrating presence in the United squad.
Until his return from the 2006 World Cup that is.
“He was a completely different person,” said Neville.
“He had gone from a featherweight, making the wrong decisions in the last third of the pitch, to a light-heavyweight.
“I cannot think of any player who graced Old Trafford like he did for two seasons.
“He won us matches week in, week out. It was a phenomenal level of performance, scoring an unbelievable amount of goals.
“The Real Madrid crowd are unforgiving.
“They spent £80million on him but look at the contribution he has made.
“He is scoring more than a goal a game.
“He is in the same bracket as Messi and you can put them both up there with Pele and Maradona.
“I don’t get emotional about these things but I feel privileged to have played with him.”