Cristiano Ronaldo’s return to Manchester United is great for football in this country, and for me, it is a reminder of the first time I remember seeing an opposition player almost single-handedly teach Sunderland a footballing lesson.
It was Boxing Day 2007, halfway through our first Premier League campaign under Roy Keane and also my first season as a Sunderland season ticket holder.
We went into the match third off bottom having won just three of our opening 18 matches. The gulf in class between the two starting lineups was massive, and it quickly showed on the pitch…
A backline of Dean Whitehead, Paul McShane, Danny Higginbotham and Danny Collins kept Ronaldo and co at bay for just 20 minutes.
The Portuguese winger linked up well with Wayne Rooney and the pair made Sunderland look very average.
Ronaldo tested Craig Gordon early with a freekick that dipped and swerved, and it wouldn’t be the last time Sunderland fans would hold their breath at the sight of him standing over the ball that day.
Rooney broke the deadlock when a Wes Brown pass (yep, remember him) sliced through Roy Keane’s side like a hot knife through butter. It was an easy finish.
The now Derby manager turned provider for United’s second for Louis Saha (you may be less likely to remember his time as a Sunderland player). It was all too easy for a side who looked as though they were barely out of second gear.
Ronaldo fizzed in another free-kick that was clawed away by Gordon and by this point, 10 year-old-me was fearing the worst. It was nice to see such a world-class player in the flesh, but it would have been nicer if the team he was making look like schoolboys wasn’t my team.
It wasn’t all one way traffic, but Ross Wallace’s saved effort from outside the box was about as close as we got.
On the stroke of halftime, it was third time lucky for Ronaldo and free kicks. Darren Fletcher took a tumble 25 yards out and referee Uriah Rennie signalled for Ronaldo to take up his iconic stance over the ball.
Seconds later, the ball was planted into the top corner of Gordon’s goal. Half time was sweet relief for myself and the large majority of the packed crowd at the Stadium of Light.
It was 45 minutes that showed how far away we were from being a very good Premier League side, but being able to see Ronaldo star for the visitors was at least something.
United slowed things down in the second half, but it still felt as though they would score every time they came forward.
Paul McShane had a mad five seconds where he got the ball, slipped on the ball, retained the ball, and then passed it straight to a United player. This summed up his Sunderland career, for me.
A very clear dive in the box from Nani resulted in a United penalty five minutes from time. This was converted by Saha to complete Sunderland’s misery.
The visitors could have had another three or four on the day, but we got away with 4-0.
Seeing Ronaldo link up with Rooney was impressive to see in person. I would see many top players turn our defenders into play things that season, but Ronaldo’s display is one that stands out the most.
Three days later we beat Bolton 3-1 and everything was right with the world again...
Sunderland: Gordon, Whitehead, McShane, Higginbotham, Collins, Wallace (Leadbitter 46), Etuhu, Yorke (Richardson 61), Waghorn, Jones, Chopra (O’Donovan 86).
Subs Not Used: Ward, Cole.
Manchester Utd: Kuszczak, O’Shea, Ferdinand, Vidic (Pique 73), Brown, Ronaldo (Park 57), Fletcher, Carrick, Nani, Rooney, Saha.
Subs Not Used: Heaton, Evra, Tevez.