Cristiano Ronaldo: The Manchester United club legend who became too toxic to keep

Cristiano Ronaldo’s first spell at Manchester United ended with the reigning Ballon d’Or winner playing his final game in a Champions League final and departing for a world record fee. His second ended on the pitch with an altercation with Tyrone Mings, for which he might have been sent off, and off it with an interview with Piers Morgan that prompted suggestions United could sue him.

The mighty has fallen. Ronaldo might say the same about United, given his criticisms of them, but if he officially leaves by mutual agreement, it is one of the few things they can concur about. Ronaldo felt too toxic to keep. A man with three goals this season, two of them against Sheriff Tiraspol, fired more shots in a televised outburst than he has done at opposing goalkeepers. He made his position untenable.

In turn, he made Erik ten Hag the manager who won both a power struggle with one of the greatest footballers of all time and a popularity contest. It is telling how the vast majority of United supporters backed the manager. So, clearly, did the board, not to mention the players who were also subject to his disparaging comments. Old Trafford may be a happier place without a talent whose first spell in Manchester was so extraordinary it gives him a claim to be United’s finest player since George Best and Bobby Charlton.

If Ronaldo misjudged the mood time and again, from his desire to leave in the summer, when his assumptions he would find an elite suitor were displaced, to ignoring the evidence of his decline that meant Ten Hag had legitimate footballing reasons to prefer Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford, he was not alone in making mistakes.

His second coming was the coup that wasn’t. It was United’s failings – the lack of strategy, the fondness for short cuts, the addiction to the rich and famous, the idea putting names together would make a team, the emphasis on the commercial at the expense of the sporting – in one deal. It was flawed at every level, involving everyone. It can be pinned on the Glazers, but it was not just them.

Not when Sir Alex Ferguson, Rio Ferdinand and Bruno Fernandes all seemed co-opted into the recruitment team, each displaying his persuasive powers to enable United to pay a £12million fee and the biggest salary in their history to a 36-year-old Juventus did not want. At a time when United needed to turn to their future, they were trapped in their past, imagining they could recreate it. The wishful thinking extended to most of the United alumni in the punditerati, showing a lack of judgment in their slavish devotion to Ronaldo, blinded to the notion he was a problem, not the solution.

The Portuguese eviscerated defences for years. Despite a 24-goal season last year – and few of his age are capable of that return – his destructive effect was felt more on his own side. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s regime entered a downward spiral. Ralf Rangnick, who Ronaldo claimed he had never heard of, concluded United couldn’t play without the Portuguese and couldn’t press with him. Ten Hag declined to bring him on in a Manchester derby when United conceded six times and Ronaldo refused to be introduced in an altogether better display against Tottenham.

The highlights of his second spell were few and far between. There was the euphoric, two-goal comeback against Newcastle, the brilliant hat-trick against Spurs in March, the brilliant hat-trick against Tottenham, the 700th club goal at Everton. But with him, United had their worst season in more than three decades. None of their younger attackers benefited from his presence. Fernandes was an inferior player with his compatriot on the pitch. Ten Hag had the strength and clarity of vision to see through United’s delusion and formulate a different strategy. He had the sense to talk tactfully. He showed a dignity Ronaldo has lacked. His reputation has been enhanced as Ronaldo has tarnished his legacy.

Perhaps not irreparably because in time the memories of his 42-goal campaign in 2007-08 will remain and his unwise return will be overshadowed. He will remain one of United’s collection of magnificent No 7s. Yet the idea that Old Trafford is his spiritual home has been rebuffed, the ridiculous rhetoric United produced when they re-signed him looking still more flawed when their rivals were constructing teams, harnessing styles of play, winning more games.

Maybe Ronaldo heads into his fifth World Cup happy. He has wanted to go months ago. He has got his wish. But his 15 months back at United have been the most chastening spell of his career. He goes with evidence United are a better team without him and questions if any of the superpowers would want him. If his departure in 2009 was grounds for mourning for United, now it may bring a sigh of relief.