Former Liverpool manager, Phil Thompson in his autobiography tells a story of how he and Gerard Houllier “almost choked” on their dinner when Cristiano Ronaldo signed for Manchester United.
The Reds believed that they had already convinced the young Portuguese winger to sign for Liverpool in a deal worth just £ 4 million back in 2003.
Ronaldo had been flourishing in Lisbon with Sporting, and the teenager’s reputation was growing after a number of dazzling displays.
Thompson recalled going out for dinner with football agent Tony Henry in the Portuguese capital, where the pair thrashed out the finer details of a transfer.
However, it was a deal that would never come to fruition.
Having caught Alex 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 Ronaldo 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 an agent were 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 a Sunday, on 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?”
Whether Liverpool was 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 at the early stage of his career. 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 the second time around.