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Cristiano Ronaldo made Liverpool manager 'choke on food' after transfer talks

Once the world’s most expensive player and most-sought after elite stars, Cristiano Ronaldo was given a wake-up call regarding his current standing in the summer as he tried in vain to force an exit from Manchester United.

Having only returned to Old Trafford in the summer of 2021, the Portuguese might have scored 24 goals for the Red Devils last season but it was a miserable campaign for United which saw them finish sixth in the table and miss out on Champions League football. Not wanting to compete away from the continent’s top competition, with the 37-year-old still keen to be a domestic or European champion again before he retires, the forward told club bosses of his desire to leave.

Yet what he was greeted by was limited interest with a number of top clubs distancing themselves from a potential move. As a result, Ronaldo was forced to remain with United and compete in the Europa League for the first time in his illustrious career as a result. Meanwhile, he’s not even first-choice under new manager Erik ten Hag.

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It’s a stark cry from the previous summer when United, following intervention from legendary manager Sir Alex Ferguson, swooped to re-sign the forward from Juventus, 12 years on from his first Old Trafford exit, after he had held talks over a potential switch to local-rivals Man City.

At the time, Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp had warned against such a short-term transfer with regards to the veteran, suggesting it was a switch the Reds would never be in the market for.

“It’s not about me to judge that,” he told reporters in August 2021. “It’s about if other clubs can do things like this, it’s obviously not business for the future. In three or four years we will have the benefit of that, it’s for now and immediately if that happens.

“That is how some clubs are obviously working and that is absolutely fine, but there must be different ways. There must be a team a year later and two years later, for us at least. And three years later as well.

“You need success. We felt that if you can win trophies it is great but it’s not, even with the best squad in the world, possible every year. If that’s not possible, you still need to make sure you develop as a team and a club.

“That’s what we did and that’s what we do. Anything else is really not in our hands. We watch it like all of you and will see what happens.”

Klopp would ultimately be proven right, given Ronaldo’s swift desire to head for the Old Trafford exit door in line with United’s flailing fortunes. Yet while Liverpool would never be in the market for the veteran Portuguese, inevitably commanding some of the biggest wages in the Premier League despite his age due to his status as one of the game’s greatest ever players, it was a very different story 19 years ago when the then-teenage first made the move to England.

Having caught Ferguson's eye as Sporting Lisbon beat United 3-1 in a pre-season friendly back in August 2003, the Red Devils moved quickly to sign the winger in a £12.2m deal. Yet the transfer came as a massive shock to then Liverpool manager Gerard Houllier and assistant manager Phil Thompson who had been in negotiations regarding a £4m move for the then 18-year-old just days earlier.

"I saw him in the Toulon Under-21 tournament and we went for him," admitted Houllier back in 2017. "But we had a wage scale and we weren't paying the sort of salary he wanted.

"Then Manchester United played a friendly against Sporting Lisbon and all their boys said to Sir Alex Ferguson: 'You have to sign him'. But I agreed with not breaking the wage structure. I thought it would cause problems in our dressing room.

"Maybe we would have won the title with Ronaldo, but we had Harry Kewell, who was outstanding at the time and was very hungry but got a bad injury. After that, he never had the same confidence, the same appetite."

Liverpool had believed they were leading the race to sign Ronaldo, prior to United’s interaction. And having scouted the Portuguese personally and dealt with the agent first-hand, Thompson has recalled how the Reds missed out on the forward a number of times over the years.

"I was invited to watch Sporting Lisbon play Porto in the last game of the season”, Thompson said in his 2005 autobiography . “Tony Henry, the former Manchester City player and agent, was on the phone on a regular basis to see if he could take us to watch him.

“Ronaldo was quite good, but not as impressive as the first time I saw him. Tony was pushing the boy and saying he was a talent. He was saying: 'He will only cost £4m.'

"We had just signed Florent Sinama Pongolle and Anthony Le Tallec, both on far less than Ronaldo's aspirations. And we would have had anarchy if the other players had found out how much we were considering paying for an 18-year-old kid.

"We looked for a compromise. Ten days later I was sitting in a lounge at Anfield having some lunch and looking at the big TV screen. Up came the news United had signed Ronaldo from Lisbon for £12.2m. Gerard and myself nearly choked on our food.

“[Tony Henry] said: 'After you had been with me, I got a phone call the following week and was told to drop everything on the deal. Hand on heart, I really don't know what happened.'

"I went back and told Gerard the story. What happened, God only knows. For the fee to jump from £4m to £12m, especially as they seemed so desperate, was surprising to say the least."

Admittedly as the years have passed and Ronaldo’s status has grown, Thompson’s account has changed slightly with his more recent version of events suggesting Liverpool hadn’t actually passed on the forward because of his wage demands, only to be beaten to the punch by United while working on their own £4m transfer.

"There were a few players we missed out on when I was working with Gerard Houllier at Liverpool," Thompson told Paddy Power . "There was one who was not, maybe, a big name at all but he did alright in life and in football. "His name was... I think... Ah yes, Cristiano Ronaldo was his name.

“We actually went and had a look at him because he was being offered to a lot of clubs by his agent Paul Stretford, and we were being offered him as well. There was Manchester United, I remember being linked, Newcastle as well, and people were wanting him. I went to see the last game of the season over there [in Portugal] and we chatted.

"That was on the Sunday, on the Monday I arrived back in Liverpool, went into training, we were sitting there, and I said to Gerard Houllier, 'This boy's a player, he's great.' He'd been offered to everybody for £4m.

"He wanted £1m over the four years of his contract and it would have quite easily been done. Next thing, it comes up on the screen on the strap at the bottom of Sky Sports News, ' Cristiano Ronaldo signs for United - £12.2m.'

"Gerard Houllier said: 'What the heck's gone on there, Phil? I thought it was £4m? 'I thought it was up for debate.' He said: 'Get on to the agent and find out why.'

"I went over there with a guy called Tony Henry who worked with Paul Stretford and I rang him and he said: 'Phil, when I got off the plane I got a phone call and got told 'you're off the deal'.'

"You can make up your own minds what happened there but that was close, but he's done alright for himself, hasn't he?"

He also recently told The Athletic : “I can still remember Tony's exact words. It was all very nice and relaxed. It's £4 million and it can be paid over the four years of his contract, so £1 million a year. That seemed very reasonable. Then I asked about the salary and Tony told me it was £1 million a year, net.”

"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 £12.2million.' Gerard and myself almost choked on our food. I can remember Gerard jumping up and saying, 'What the hell has gone on there?'"

Whether Liverpool were just gazumped by United or had already turned their noses up at Ronaldo’s wage demands before seeing him move to Old Trafford, the truth appears to have been lost in whispers over the years. Either way the Reds’ loss would be the Red Devils’ gain, with his wage demands and price-tag quickly proving to be the shrewdest of bargains.

As a result, Liverpool bosses will have ultimately cursed missing out on the Portuguese repeatedly during the plomp of his powers. While it might be the smallest of consolations in comparison now, at least Klopp was spot on with his decision-making when it came to Ronaldo’s move to England second time around.