Manchester United And The Summer of 2003

The summer of 2003 was a big one for transfer stories and Manchester United were caught up in the three biggest tales of that period.

David Beckham had been a Red Devil his entire career at that point. Having been a success with the club’s youth team, Beckham would make his senior United debut in September 1992.

By the end of May 2003, Becks had made just short of 400 competitive appearances for the English giants. He’d helped the side claim six Premier League titles, two FA Cups and a Champions League.

Yet his time was now up at Old Trafford.

Beckham’s relationship with United manager and his mentor Sir Alex Ferguson had deteriorated to a point that it was obvious that the two couldn’t co-exist together in Manchester. As Paul Ince, Andrei Kanchelskis and Jaap Stam could testify no player would last long at the club after clashing with Fergie.

A rumoured move to Real Madrid had been talked about for pretty much the whole of the Premier League title run-in during that 2002-03 season. The two clubs would meet in that year’s Champions League with the tie becoming an instant classic!

In the second leg (United trailing 3-1 from the first), Ferguson who was already missing Paul Scholes from his midfield decided to bench Beckham and play attacker Ole Gunnar Solskjaer instead.

A wonderful hat-trick by Ronaldo was enough to finally put Real through but England star Beckham climbed off the bench to grab a brace and give United a 4-3 win on the night.

The fact was that David Beckham had by this time become a global superstar. As well as being a great footballer, he had also become a major celebrity and this clearly annoyed Ferguson, a manager who didn’t want distractions to enter his dressing room.

Earlier in the campaign, after losing an FA Cup tie to Arsenal, Fergie in a rage lashed out and kicked a football boot. The object would fly across the changing room and hit his famous right winger above his left eye. The England international would then appear in most of the tabloids sporting stitches over the wound caused by that fiery incident.

On June 18th 2003, David Beckham was announced as Real Madrid’s new Galactio after penning a four year deal for a fee of £24.5m (Source BBC Sport).

With that transfer done, Manchester United were on the lookout for someone to come in and wow the Old Trafford faithful.

It soon became apparent that Brazilian international forward Ronaldinho was high up on Ferguson’s list of targets.

The gifted player had just completed his second season in Europe, starring for Ligue 1 side PSG. He clearly had talent and was ready to showcase that talent to a wider audience in one of the continent’s bigger leagues.

Those in England had already witnessed Ronaldinho’s brilliance as it was his free-kick that looped over David Seaman and ended England’s hopes at the 2002 World Cup.

With Real purchasing Becks, it seemed they were out of the race for Ronaldinho but that was never a certainty. FC Barcelona were making a lot of noises but had to await the election results of their presidency before making any moves.

The path seemed clear for Man United to swoop in and get the talismanic Ronaldinho.

Weeks of negotiating then ensued as the Red Devils tried to tie the player down:

United would then release a statement:

“Negotiations between Manchester United and Paris St Germain and representatives of Ronaldinho have been ongoing for several weeks. 

“In order to bring talks to a conclusion the club has spoken again to Paris St Germain and the players’ representatives and following our final written offer submitted on Friday morning, we have notified all parties that unless an agreement is reached by 1900CET, Manchester United will withdraw from the process.”

Via SKY Sports

That deadline would come and go without a glimpse of Ronnie in a United jersey.

According to the then twenty-three year old Brazilian a deal was pretty much agreed with United before a last minute call from Barca changed history:

“It almost happened with United,”

“It was a matter of 48 hours, but Sandro Rosell had told me way before I got the offer: ‘If I become Barca president, will you come?’ I said yes.”

“It was only a matter of details with United when Rosell called to say he was going to win the elections there.”

“And I had promised to him that I’d play for Barca. It was a quick negotiation. I told the English I had chosen Barca.”

Source Four Four Two via

On the 20th of July 2003, Ronaldinho became the player who got away as he signed on at the Camp Nou.

David Beckham would become the start of the end of that Galaticos era. While he didn’t win much in the way of silverware; his desire and determination won over the Real Madrid support.

David would stay in Spain for four years and he’d help them to the La Liga title in his final season with the club.

Ronaldinho would become one of the world’s very best players at Barcelona. He changed the clubs fortunes with his skill, assists and goals. He stayed at a year longer than Beckham in Spain but won two league titles, a Champions League and was voted the world’s best player in 2005.

But what of Man United in 2003?

They’d lost a significant first team star in Beckham and had failed in securing top target Ronaldinho. That failed deal to bring in Ronaldinho lasted until mid to late July.

Did United and Sir Alex panic?

Nope. Fergie did what Fergie did best and secured a top prospect and made that prospect a superstar!

Man Utd would travel to Lisbon on August 9th 2003, still void of a new creative spark, to play in a preseason friendly. Boasting a strong line-up that included Fabien Barthez, Nicky Butt, Mikael Silvestre, Paul Scholes Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, John O’Shea and Rio Ferdinand United would slump to a 3-1 defeat to Sporting CP.

During that loss, a talented eighteen year old stood out for the Portuguese giants. A kid called Cristiano Ronaldo gave the Red Devils a torrid time, especially O’Shea.

The story goes that the United players trotted into their dressing room and demanded Ferguson sign the wonderkid on the spot.

Just three days after that friendly and United announced that they had indeed purchased the young Ronaldo in a £12.25m move (Source – BBC Sport).

Fans around Europe were left scratching their head.

Was Ferguson going to hand this kid the prestigious Number Seven shirt and have him as Beckham’s replacement?

Well we all know what happened next. Cristiano Ronaldo would go on and become a footballing legend. Alongside Lionel Messi (Ronaldinho’s successor at Barca), Cristiano is now considered an all-time great.

He might have been a bit precocious and raw in his debut season at United but everyone could see that there was a superb player in making dancing down the right wing at Old Trafford.

He would learn to do more by doing less as his career progressed. He didn’t need to keep hold of the ball for longer than was needed and he didn’t need to do trick after trick. It was better for him to set his sights on goal and create and score as many goals as possible.

Ronaldo would spend six years in Manchester. He’d play 292 games and score 118 goals. Three Premier League titles, two League Cups, an FA Cup, a Champions League winners medal and a World Club Cup followed. He’d also bag himself his first Ballon d’Or.

A huge move to Real Madrid followed, he’d spend nine years there and winning everything with Los Blancos. He would then join Juventus and win two Serie A titles in Italy.

Last summer Cristiano Ronaldo re-signed for Man United, to much greater fanfare than in 2003. He’s rejoined the club that are once again in transition just as it was back in his debut year.

Now will United see the best of Ronaldo this time around probably not, but if he can inspire the next generation then it could help the club get back to their glory years.

It’s funny how so many things lead back to that summer of 2003!

Leave a Reply