At the time, it was heralded as one of the transfers of the summer - a statement of intent capable of levelling treacherously uneven playing fields and bridging hitherto insurmountable chasms in class.
For those of a sentimental persuasion, Cristiano Ronaldo’s sudden and largely unexpected return to Manchester United also boasted the added sweetener of a fairytale subtext - the prodigal galactico coming home to rally an ailing superpower and assert his legacy as some kind of divine resuscitator.
Evidently, the various missteps that have transpired since have been less Brothers Grimm, and more, well, plain old grim, but in spite of United’s persistent woes, there are still those who would argue, presumably for reasons of blind devotion, that Ronaldo’s second coming has been a success story.
In some capacity, you can’t help wondering if that standpoint is one underpinned by a certain amount of lingering playground churlishness. When it became apparent that Ronaldo was leaving Juventus last summer, the only other club that emerged as a realistic destination for the 37-year-old were, of course, Manchester City.
United took great delight in fending off their pesky neighbours in the race for his signature, although the extent to which Pep Guardiola was actually interested in recruiting CR7 to his harmonious victory juggernaut is a matter of some philosophical debate.
Certainly, after missing out on Ronaldo, and given City’s continued push for a historic treble, you would imagine that the words “bullet” and “dodged” have wafted through the Spaniard’s subconscious more than once.
Nonetheless, it does make for an intriguing hypothetical - what would have happened if Cristiano Ronaldo had snubbed United, and instead opted for the sky blue of their nearest rivals?
Well, fear not, dear reader, for we have been through the looking glass, and think we might just have all the answers.
- Cristiano Ronaldo signs for Manchester City. Everyone loses their mind, including United, who instead have to settle for a deadline day swoop involving another ageing legend with a storied history in the North West. Welcome to Old Trafford, Roque Santa Cruz!
- Things start well for Ronaldo at the Etihad, netting four goals in his first five games, and perhaps more importantly, a number of lucrative Emirates-influenced sponsorship deals.
- The honeymoon period does not last long, however. Cracks appear after an ill-fated Carabao Cup clash against Wycombe Wanderers. Granted, City win 6-1, but Ronaldo is an unused substitute. Furious at the indignity, CR7 starts to give a number of increasingly sulky, rather cryptic interviews in which he appears to disparage a certain Mr Guardiola. Tensions bubble.
- Despite Pep repeatedly downplaying the situation, it’s clear something is afoot, with rumours circulating that Ronaldo has divided the dressing room and is whispering in the owner’s ear about the manager’s future.
- Things come to a head after a shock Manchester derby defeat in early November. Ronaldo, poorly suited to City’s fluid style of play, hasn’t scored in eight, and is accused of coasting through the heated clash. City are now seven points off the pace at the top of the Premier League table. After considerable public unrest and widespread implications of Machiavellian politics, Pep is - somewhat inexplicably - ousted by the owners.
- Despite a number of big names being mentioned in relation to the now-vacant City job, the board instead move to bring in Alan Curbishley. There is little doubt among esteemed talking heads that this is essentially a front for what is now a puppet regime run by newly-anointed club captain - and major sponsorship cash cow - Ronaldo.
- Much is made of Pep’s potential next move, with speculation over various sensational agreements peddled by the usual suspects. Instead, disillusioned with the rotting cesspit of elite football, he decides to make a left turn into the relative comfort and civility of international politics. With time on his hands, and buoyed by a hefty severance package, Guardiola successfully fronts a referendum campaign for Catalan independence.
- Spurred on by events in Iberia, Scotland renew their calls for a second independence referendum, and backed by the tailwind of a Brexit omnishambles, secure a landslide vote in favour of separation from the union.
- Delighted with their long-pursued success, but in desperate need of finance for their newly devolved nation, Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP soon turn their attentions to the North Sea and its considerable fossil fuel reserves. While drilling for oil, however, they accidentally awaken a hitherto dormant evil of legendary stature. Lord Cthulhu rises from his slumber in a lair on the seabed. The apocalypse feels nigh.
- Incredibly, however, Cthulhu - and his translators - appear to be open to political negotiation. Talks begin in earnest, but a period of uneasy appeasement eventually gives way to mounting dread as he starts to align himself with a number of contrary international superpowers and their various agendas. Among these are UAE, keen to limit competition in the global energy market by ensuring that the North Sea oil reserve, of which Cthulhu has taken de facto control, falls under their jurisdiction.
- Meanwhile, Man City finish fourth, 28 points adrift of title winners Liverpool. Ronaldo and the board do away with Curbishley, banishing any semblance of facade as the Portuguese icon assumes the role of player/manager at the Etihad.
- Back in the global political arena, Cthulhu forms an official pact with UAE. Ronaldo, essentially a poster boy for their sportwashing ventures at this stage, is a visible presence at negotiations - during which he ingratiates himself dearly with the High Priest of the Great Old Ones.
- Rumours start to circulate that CR7 and Cth7 are manoeuvring themselves towards a bloodless coup that would see them overthrow the Emirates royal family through a combination of savvy capital ventures and massive tentacles. Think HBO’s Succession with more Lovecraftian horror and less Kieran Culkin. These are initially dismissed as tabloid fodder until...
- An aggrieved Sturgeon forms a plucky alliance with Pep Guardiola’s Catalan government. There are old scores to settle and international diplomacy at stake. Despite their lack of resources, the partnership begins to hit UAE’s North Sea oil fields with a series of increasingly damaging guerrilla attacks.
- Ronaldo, up to his old tricks again, starts to whisper in one of Cthulhu’s many ear-like orifices, questioning the Crown Prince’s tactical approach to defending the North Sea. In an unprecedented move, The Great Dreamer ousts the Prince and installs Cristiano as player/regent.
- After a promising start to their campaign, however, Team CthSIUUUUUUUlu start to suffer embarrassing losses once again. In response, Cthulhu calls in reinforcements. FROM OUTER SPACE. A fleet of Khuureath from the distant Khreaun nebula arrive on Earth within a week. Godzilla is also brought in on loan.
- Now heading up his own intergalactic war juggernaut, Ronaldo, somewhat unexpectedly, makes a move to purchase Disney, and all its related assets. His first order of business is to commission a behind-the-scenes, tell-all reality TV series in which we are repeatedly assured that he’s actually a good guy (honest), and that the secret to his success is spending 18 hours a day on an exercise bike and renouncing meringues. Those random anonymous Twitter accounts that tweet ‘Pessi’ 60 times a day lap it up, as does Piers Morgan.
- As part of his new interplanetary pact, Ronaldo is granted one-time access to the Khuureath’s time-travelling mega-orb. Despite the inherent risk attached, he goes back to the turn of the millennium and destroys the vat of Human Growth Hormone Barcelona dunked Lionel Messi in as a boy. The record books now show that Ronaldo won 10 consecutive Ballon d’Or awards.
- Back in the present, Ronaldo’s grip on the North Sea tightens. Turns out a mercenary army of six-armed aliens with laser blasters can make short work of a couple of hundred Scotsmen in wet suits. The situation looks dire, and peace talks brokered by the USA collapse after Cristiano refuses to travel to the States.
- The conflict escalates, and all hope appears lost. After being forced to acquiesce to his demands, Guardiola and David Moyes (drafted in as a steadying presence in the aftermath of Sturgeon’s tumultuous premiership), are staring squarely down the barrel of defeat. A treaty is signed begrudgingly.
- In a controversial move - many believe due to equal parts arrogance and petulance - Ronaldo sends his alien militia home, dismissing Cthulhu and Godzilla too after rumours of yet another split in the dressing room.
- Now completely assured of his own steadfastness on the global political scene, however, Ronaldo orders the erection of a 2,300 ft statue of himself to be constructed at a point equidistant between Lisbon, Abu Dhabi, Manchester, and Madrid. Scientists argue no such point exists. Ronaldo has them banished to a top secret, state of the art prison facility at the summit of Mount Aconcagua in Argentina, along with fellow exiles, 4’10” Lionel Messi, and former Plymouth Argyle and Rotherham United defender Kari Arnason. Ronaldo’s monument is to be the tallest man-made structure on the planet. The Adam’s apple alone is the size of a Ford Transit.
- Unsurprisingly, Ronaldo is present at the setting of the foundations of said statue. The 10-time Ballon d’Or winner even has the distinction of being the man to press the big red button that will bring forth the deluge of carbonite (a shared technological advancement courtesy of the Khuureath) which will cement its gargantuan Nike boots in place. A massive crowd gathers, stretching as far as the eye can see, to witness Ronaldo bask in his own glory. He stands tall atop a raised platform, remote control in hand, high above a deep pit full of steel girders and the like. Cristiano lifts a single finger to the gods, opens his mouth, and goes to let out the first hiss of a bellowing SIUUUUUUU, but is stopped in his tracks as a swirling green portal opens up on the stage beside him. From it, out leaps a small Evertonian boy with a bruised hand and a knackered iPhone. The young Scouser has been contacted as part of President Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson’s secret CIA research project into accessing parallel universes, and he wants vengeance. In one fell swoop, he slaps the remote control from Ronaldo’s grasp and down towards the pit. CR7’s superhuman reflexes kick in, and without thinking he dives after the controller, catching it in one hand and inadvertently smashing the big red button with his other. He realises his mistake too late. Like Gollum in the fiery pits of Mount Doom, he plunges into the depths below, sealed forever in a rising tide of carbonite and hubris.
- The world, at long last, knows peace.