In 2003 Alex Ferguson signed an 18-year-old with potential. His first instinct was to lend him back to the club he’d just bought him from but, in the end, he kept him in Manchester. The United fans could see he had potential but became frustrated that, across the season, for all the games where he was electrifying, he had as many games when he disappointed. He backed out of tackles, lost his temper too often and found himself out of position in a team that was all about position and movement. Ferguson stuck with him that season and he chipped in with a measly 6 goals in 40 first team games.
Ronaldo was a thin teenager who hadn’t filled out and veteran defenders knew that a well-timed knock early on and the Portuguese would vanish from the game. He was still learning the game and also how to deal with big occasions and intense atmospheres.
But he learned. And he grew – physically and mentally. He learned not just how to avoid the contact but also that, if it was in a convenient location, making the most of the contact would help the team. He turned into a player who absorbed the pressure and turned it into energy on the pitch.
Ronaldo owes the second greatest St Mirren manager for an awful lot but there were three other big things in his favour.
1) Nothing was expected of him that season, he was one for the future.
2) He was being added to a settled and well-balanced team that were one of the best teams in the world.
3) If he needed advice on how to play up front or as a goal scoring midfielder he could ask Scholes, van Nistelrooy, Solskjaer or Giggs.
Josh Maja was hurled into an underperforming squad last season and, only two years after he made his first team debut, is doing exceptionally well. Other than Defoe, I can’t think of another finisher at the club as naturally gifted since Kevin Phillips. He has, potentially, everything to make it to the elite tier of football.
But we need to be patient and do our bit to help him develop. Where Cristiano had Giggs to guide, Josh has a 22-year-old American in his first season of being a first-choice player. Instead of van Nistelrooy, his striker advice must come from, erm, no one.
The shape and position of our team doesn’t help him. Ross has come in and tried to solve our defensive frailties (and we’re getting there) but the concerns over the defence mean we sit deeper and deeper as games play out. This leaves Maja more and more isolated, especially with midfielders like Cattermole and McGeouch whose first instinct is to sit in and knock a ten-foot sideways pass, rather than a forward option.
Even if the ball does come forward, with one up front he often has to move wide to collect and play to win a corner or hold up the ball for others to join him.
Add in the fact he’s often marked by centre halves whose lunch orders are heavier than he is and you start to appreciate how hard his job is.
And then there’s the expectation. He’s gone from ‘that lad who scores in the reserves (no not the Swedish one, the younger lad from London)’ to ‘I reckon Maja could get two or three against these’.
Against Coventry he didn’t perform. Fine. But some fans and then journalists got on his back straight away. That won’t help him or us. His goals this season have built an expectation that he will score in every game, that he will destroy all before him and lead us to the promised land single handed.
But he will help us get there.
And our job is to stick with him. Watch him grow physically and emotionally and, when his head drops, help him pick it up again. Remember that he’s the same age as Elliot Embleton who, despite international recognition and praise, we’ve lent to a League Two team for experience. Remember that he’s an age where I couldn’t have stood in front of 30,000 people without needing new trousers, never mind performing to their satisfaction.
If we – the fans, the manager and his team mates – support him like Ronaldo was supported he will achieve great things. If we get on his back for not instantly achieving what we believe he will, one day, be capable of, we run the risk of creating another for that list of former players who nearly made it.