By CHRISTOPHER DAVIES
GEORGE BEST remains the number one player in David Meek’s personal Manchester United hall of fame, followed by Eric Cantona. Yet despite having been at Old Trafford for only two years when he wrote the book Manchester United’s Perfect 10, Cristiano Ronaldo – controversially – made the cut.
The Real Madrid striker faces his former club in the Champions League at the Bernabeu on February 13 before making his first return to Old Trafford on March 5. Meek’s selection of Ronaldo received criticism at the time, but the football writer who covered United for the Manchester Evening News from 1958 to 1995 said: “I knew I was taking a bit of a flyer because all the other players were not only of great quality, they helped the club to success over a period of time. I chose Ronaldo because he had such an exceptional talent, was so exciting and made such an early impact that I felt I had to include him.” Meek added with a laugh: “What brilliant judgment that was.”
Ronaldo went on help United win three Barclays Premier League titles, one FA Cup, two League Cups, one Champions League and one Club World Cup plus being chosen as the Football Writers’ Association’s Footballer of the Year twice. Best’s collection of silverware – two First Division winners’ medals and one European Cup – does not reflect his incredible talent but he quit United at 27, an age when a player is usually at his peak. Meek said: “Best was unique…I made Cantona second for the impact he had at United. He was the catalyst for the first championship in 26 years.”
Meek, a life member of the FWA, is confident Ronaldo will receive a warm reception when Real come to Old Trafford though this is mainly due to the persuasive powers of Sir Alex Ferguson who talked the Portugal international into staying for one more season. He said: “Cristiano will get a good reception because he was well managed and advised by Sir Alex. After five years there were rumours flying around about Real Madrid. I think it was mostly his agent getting busy, but Sir Alex told Cristiano ‘if you go now you’ll leave as a villain in the eyes of the fans because they’ll feel you’re letting them down and going too soon. Give it another year and you’ll leave a hero. Not only will you have contributed to something in that year, you’ll have shown a regard for Manchester United that will reflect well on you.’
“It was very shrewd of Sir Alex. You might say he was being selfish and keeping a great player for another year, but his advice was correct and Cristiano is held in high esteem by United fans.”
It took United’s first Portuguese player a while to win the supporters – and manager – over following his £12.24 million transfer from Sporting Lisbon in 2003. Meek said: “He had a rough beginning in the sense the crowd became impatient with him while the media called him a one trick pony and criticised him for being a diver. It was suggested he’d soon be rumbled and cut down to size in the Premier League. He wasn’t an instant success, but by the second year Sir Alex and his coaches had worked on him, telling him not to go down too easily.
“When I first saw him I never thought he would reach the heights he has, but a year or so later it was obvious he was going to go a long way.”
An ongoing problem for Ronaldo is being born in the same era as Lionel Messi, the Barcelona maestro always seeming to pip his rival for the major individual honours and scoring records. If Ronaldo grabs a hat-trick, Messi will score four, but Meek puts the Real player ahead of the Argentina international. He said: “I know I’m biased, but if I had to cast a vote in the head-to-head…while appreciating the tremendous artistry and effectiveness of Messi I would vote for Ronaldo because he’s carrying the Real Madrid team these days and still playing exceptionally well.
“Messi is surrounded by wonderful players such as Andres Iniesta and Xavi. If you’re even half a player you can play a little bit with people like that around you. Ronaldo has to do it more on his own, just as Cantona carried United for a while until the David Beckham era of youngsters matured. Cantona would score the goal in 1-0 wins.”
Having helped Ronaldo become a world star, Ferguson must now devise a plan to minimise the impact of the £80 million superstar. Meek said: “Sir Alex has never really gone in for man-marking. I think he will prefer cover-marking. Assuming Ronaldo plays from the left wing, in young Rafael United have a very quick Brazilian full-back who will feel he can cope with Ronaldo as well as anyone can. Whoever plays on the wing will have to drop pack and support Rafa while when Ronaldo starts roaming he’ll be picked up by the nearest man. If Sir Alex puts a player on him it would pull the United team structure apart. United are more positive than that, they prefer to impose themselves on opponents.”
For Meek, Manchester United v Real Madrid remains the ultimate European matchup. “They may be playing in the shadow of Barcelona, but United v Real excites me more than United v Barcelona. It’s a matter of history. I remember after the Munich Air Crash and it was Real Madrid who offered to play United in a friendly just to keep United in touch with European football. UEFA gave United a sympathy invitation into the European Cup, but the English authorities blocked this.
“As I understand it, the invitation was made by Real president Santiago Bernabeu to Sir Matt Busby. The game went ahead and I remember Real were awarded a penalty which they didn’t feel was justified. Alfredo di Stefano put the ball down for the penalty and deliberately kicked it over the bar. My respect for Real lingers on.”
For many, the most memorable match between the clubs was the 1967/68 European Cup semi-final second leg in Madrid when Bill Foulkes scored the winner. While Foulkes was one of the most reliable defenders United have had, in a career spanning 688 matches he scored just nine goals.
Meek said: “I asked Bill what he was doing upfield and even he doesn’t know. He just felt something drew him forward. Bill told me when Best stole away down the wing, looked across and saw who it was arriving in the Real penalty area he said to himself ‘he’ll never pass the ball to me.’” But Best did and Foulkes scored with a right foot shot to send United to the final where they defeated Benfica.
Maybe it will be Rio Ferdinand’s turn to grab an unlikely headline with his seventh goal for United in 11 years, but the Barclays Premier League leaders go into the two Champions League ties in better form than Real, who are in turmoil on and off the pitch. “United will be quietly confident they can give Real a surprise,” said Meek, who continues to collaborate with Sir Alex for the manager’s programme notes which he has done since the Scot took charge at Old Trafford.
“I enjoy doing this because he always has something to say. It’s 1,000 words now and a bit more than welcoming the directors, manager, players and fans of the visiting team. I take it as a compliment that extracts from his column are lifted as quotes by the national press. I regard that as the barometer as whether they are interesting or not.”