One by one, they came back out on to the pitch for the encore. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, Bruno Fernandes and, yes of course, Cristiano Ronaldo.
Post-match media duties on the touchline at Old Trafford turned into some kind of victory parade. As they were interviewed on camera, you could barely hear them speak. For more than an hour after the final whistle, hundreds of Manchester United fans stayed behind to celebrate and savour what felt like a momentous occasion.
There was only one name on their lips. ‘Viva Ronaldo’ they chanted over and over.
Cristiano Ronaldo scored twice as he made a triumphant return to Manchester United team
The Portuguese icon struck either side of half-time during a 4-1 victory over Newcastle
Eventually, Ronaldo re-appeared to a huge roar, dressed in a club tracksuit and having retrieved his diamond earrings. He had a wink and a dazzling smile for everyone — and still not a hair out of place. He admitted to being nervous before the match, although not nervous like you and me.
‘I didn’t expect to do that, to score two goals,’ he confessed. ‘Maybe one but not two!’
And still the fans stayed. And chanted. And surfed the wave of optimism that lapped around Old Trafford.
It was only a 4-1 win over Newcastle United but the fans were celebrating the start of something special. The confluence of a glorious past and an exciting future.
Ronaldo’s place in the pantheon of United favourites was secure long before the events that unfolded here on Saturday.
The United fans sung Ronaldo’s name all afternoon and for a long time after the final whistle
It might have felt like something out of a film script, but you can’t fabricate the two goals he scored and excitement that surrounded his return after 12 years.
‘The atmosphere around the club has been electric,’ said Solskjaer. ‘It’s changed. A few months back you think how it was here. This is what Manchester United supporters should feel like.’
Solskjaer is right. It was hard to look at the scene unfolding in the south-west quadrant of Old Trafford early on Saturday evening and not be reminded of darker times. It has become the most febrile area of the stadium, where fans in the Stretford End can get within sight of the Glazer family and Ed Woodward on their increasingly rare public appearances.
It was where demonstrators naturally gravitated after breaking into the ground in the wake of the collapsed European Super League in May. United couldn’t get them out of Old Trafford then and they couldn’t get them out now.
Avram Glazer turned up for the first time in two years on Saturday and Woodward was there, too, as he prepares to step down from his role as executive vice-chairman. There was a brief chant of ‘Glazers Out’ towards the end of the game from fans waving green and gold scarves and even Ronaldo won’t be able to change that. But everything else feels possible now.
Not far from Glazer and Woodward sat Sir Alex Ferguson and Ronaldo’s agent Jorge Mendes who could be seen talking animatedly into his phone. Up in a private box, the player’s mother Dolores wept as she watched her son steal the show. It takes a certain kind of footballer to do what he did here. All the adulation might get to other people, but not Ronaldo.
He was the last player out of the tunnel — just to milk the occasion. The first touch was a simple five-yard pass as if he was starting slowly on purpose. He built up with a twisting run into the box and shot into the side netting followed by another dribble with a few trademark stepovers.
But the Ronaldo who left United in 2009 was a far more polished player than the gifted show pony who had arrived from Sporting Lisbon six years earlier. And, at 36, he is more rounded still, although even a man with his incredible physique is not immune to the effects of time.
The 36-year-old footballing icon was treated like a hero by the supporters at Old Trafford
His first goal back at United wasn’t a worldie but a tap-in from three yards. Newcastle goalkeeper Freddie Woodman spilled Mason Greenwood’s shot in added time at the end of the first half and left Ronaldo with an open goal.
‘People say, “oh it was just a tap-in” but there is more to it than that,’ said Solskjaer. ‘You’ve got defenders watching the ball but he’s anticipating the rebound. He has got that little sense, that knack of knowing when to arrive.’
After Javier Manquillo briefly punctured the mood of euphoria around Old Trafford, Ronaldo collected Luke Shaw’s pass and accelerated away from Isaac Hayden to beat Woodman again.
Fernandes reminded us that Ronaldo isn’t the only Portuguese star at United by thumping in the third goal and Jesse Lingard scored a well-taken fourth.
Fernandes’ impact on United since arriving from Sporting has been compared to that of Eric Cantona, but Ronaldo’s return has the potential to be even greater. Solskjaer’s side must now be considered as serious contenders for the Premier League title after going top of the table.
They begin their Champions League campaign in Switzerland on Tuesday with every reason to aim high. Having admitted he never seriously thought of not starting Ronaldo against Newcastle, Solskjaer said there is no guarantee he will play in Bern.
‘We will see what we do but, no, it’s not impossible to leave him out,’ added the boss. ‘I have to manage a 36-year-old’s minutes.’
With all due respect to Young Boys, all eyes will be on United’s old boy again.