A broad grin stretches across John O’Shea’s face when he is reminded of the role he played in securing Cristiano Ronaldo’s £12.2 million transfer to Manchester United in August 2003.
The smile is followed by a shake of the head and an insistence that, despite the subsequent insistence of Sir Alex Ferguson and teammates such as Rio Ferdinand, Ryan Giggs and Gary Neville, Ronaldo did not become a United player simply because he had run the helpless Republic of Ireland defender ragged on a humid evening in Lisbon.
Thirteen years on, Ronaldo returns to boyhood club Sporting Lisbon in a Real Madrid shirt for the first time on Tuesday having developed into a global superstar since leaving the Portuguese giants for United as a precocious 17-year-old.
The Portugal captain’s life has changed beyond recognition since United manager Ferguson refused to leave Estadio Jose Alvalade following the winger’s unforgettable performance against the unfortunate O’Shea on the night Sporting officially opened their new stadium.
But what really happened that night in Lisbon, when a United squad, jet-lagged after a draining four-game preseason tour of the United States, touched down in the Portuguese capital to face Sporting? And was O’Shea the key to United doing the deal that would set Ronaldo on the road to stardom?
Ferguson, in his 2013 autobiography, sets the scene as he describes witnessing Ronaldo at close hand for the first time.
“The first pass Ronaldo took prompted me to howl: ‘For Christ’s sake, John, get tight to him!’ Ferguson wrote.
“John shrugged his shoulders. A look of plain bewilderment was creeping across his face. The other players in the dugout were saying; ‘Bloody hell, boss, he’s some player him.’
“I said, ‘It’s all right. I’ve got him sorted,’ as if the deal had been done ten years ago. I told Albert, our kit man: ‘Get up to that directors’ box and get (Peter) Kenyon (the United chief executive) down at half-time.’
“I told Peter, ‘We’re not leaving this ground until we’ve got that boy signed.’
‘Is he that good?’ Kenyon asked.
“John O’Shea’s ended up with a migraine!” I said. “Get him signed.”
United defender Ferdinand, who had arrived at Old Trafford 12 months earlier in a £29.1m move from Leeds United, recalls the squad having to sit on a bus outside the stadium for an hour after the game as the respective hierarchies of the two clubs thrashed out a deal to sign Ronaldo. By that stage, O’Shea was being subjected to the merciless taunts of his team-mates for allowing a 17-year-old to humiliate him repeatedly.
But O’Shea, now captain of Sunderland, believes the time has come to set the record straight on his contribution to the Ronaldo story.
“We flew back from a tour of America and straight to Lisbon with severe jet-lag,” he told ESPN FC.
“Normally everyone wants to play games, but on this occasion everybody had had a terrible nights’ sleep before the game, waking up at two, three, four in the morning wide awake and not able to get back to sleep.
“So everyone was not, shall we say, in ‘peak’ condition for the game. Some boys were delighted when the boss announced the team and they weren’t starting!”
But if preparing for a game with jet-lag was bad enough, facing Ronaldo with his body-clock still somewhere between New York and Los Angeles was something else.
“On to the game and I’m starting right-back,” O’Shea said. “Just before the game kicks off, I look up and a young Ronaldo is staring straight at me.
“He’s there and full of concentration, ready to go.
“Now in some books written by former colleagues, there have been some highly exaggerated stories, and believe it or not, about how much ‘Ronnie’ went past me time after time, and ripped me apart!
“My version would be different, but he did have an excellent game.
“At one stage, I remember looking at the dugout when the ball had gone out for a throw-in and some of the lads on the bench were having a good laugh, thinking that’s the last thing you need when jet-lagged — a young lad wanting to run at you time and time again, going left, going right, twisting turning, shooting every time he got within distance of the goal.
“But in a roundabout way, I take it as a compliment that the boss wanted to sign Ronaldo so quickly after the game, because of how he had performed against me that night.
“He wanted him to join straight away rather than staying on loan at Sporting Lisbon for another year to develop.
“I believe the deal was in place for Ronaldo to stay in Lisbon and then come to Manchester the following season, but after his display of skill and maturity on the night, the boss made sure we didn’t leave Lisbon without him, he was ready.”
Ronaldo, who scored the winning goal for United on his only previous return to Sporting in a Champions League fixture in September 2007, has since dominated the football stage with United and Real. This summer’s Euro 2016 triumph with Portugal adding unexpected international success that has so far eluded his main rival for top individual honours, Barcelona and Argentina forward Lionel Messi.
And O’Shea admits his old tormentor has certainly made the most of his career since that night in Lisbon.
“He didn’t turn out a bad player did he?” O’Shea said. “He has scored a few goals and won some trophies!
“He is the best player in the world now, along with another fella from Argentina.”
Mark is a Senior Football Writer for ESPN FC. Follow him @MarkOgden_