‘This guy is a genius’ — The Man United coach who helped Cristiano Ronaldo become the best player in the world

Cristiano Ronaldo has been called a genius before. Those dazzling feet down the left-wing had the mark of genius, those knuckleballs free-kicks were the touch of a genius, that goalscoring record is something only a genius could conjure up.

But when Mick Clegg calls the 37-year-old a genius, he isn’t thinking of any of those footballing traits. For Clegg, Manchester United’s former power development coach, Ronaldo’s wisdom is what has enabled him to become one of the greatest footballers to ever play the game.

It is an intriguing thought. We witness players at the level of Ronaldo and presume most of those skills come from natural talent. He was born to be brilliant.

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The teenager who turned up at Old Trafford in 2003 certainly didn’t lack in ambition. He told Clegg he would be the best player in the world, but the ‘power coach’ had heard that before; what set Ronaldo apart was the order he brought to his life from him to make sure he got there.

“When he told me he was going to the best player in the world, I’d heard that before, but when someone makes a claim like that you watch to see if it’s right,” Clegg tells the Manchester Evening News.

“What he was doing was sorting his life out, all the bits he didn’t know, didn’t understand, or needed to improve on and increase knowledge of, that’s what he wanted. He had a really good concept, the concept just needed expanding on.

“He was a marvel to work with, he ended up becoming the pattern for me, for development to be the best. His pattern can be used for anything, any sport or any business, it’s understanding all the things you require and that’s what he epitomizes.

“He was so thoughtful about what he needed. People tend to think of geniuses as professors at university, but this guy is a genius, because, without the knowledge from schools, he was able, in his own mind, to put something together that was as perfect as possible for him to get to the desired dream.

“I’ve listened to loads of professors and scientists, but this guy has got the full concept. When you listen to some people who you’re told are geniuses you can see the flaws all over the place, but Cristiano epitomizes the best of everything you can put together, that’s why I’m so proud I had the opportunity to work with him and learn from him.”

Clegg worked at Old Trafford for 11 years after joining in 2000, so he was alongside Ronaldo throughout his first spell at the club.

Now he’s back, Clegg expects the Portuguese superstar to carry on for a while yet and believes he has the capabilities to play into his 40s. But Clegg also wants to see Ronaldo use those skills that he put to such good use in maximizing his own talents by becoming a coach or a manager, ideally at Old Trafford.

“My personal view of Cristiano is that he would become a very good manager, and he needs to manage as a player as well, be a player-manager,” he said. “I know he’s got the ideas and the understanding of the culture around clubs, he’s got more experience than an awful lot of players.

“He’s got a lot going for him because of his experiences at the top level. If he became a player-manager I think he’d be great for United, he’d be my choice.

Clegg leads United’s players on a training run in Orland in pre-season in 2003

“It’s getting time where, because of the pattern he made of what is required from players, mainly himself, but he’s put those demands on others as well, he knows who is really fit and dedicated, and I think he’s got vision beyond most people .”

Ronaldo is the player Clegg is most closely associated with, but his 11 years at United were packed full of successes, stories and characters, all of which have been committed to a new book, The Power and The Glory.

It details Clegg’s remarkable rise as a power coach, a path he set upon after some publicity stunts for a band he was part of. Clegg was the bass guitarist and noticed his “el arms were skinnier than my guitar strings” and set about to change that.

He became hooked on the gym culture and trained his own children, including Steven and Michael — who were youngsters in United’s academy — while Michael followed in his father’s footsteps and is now back at United as a power coach.

It was the physique of Steven and Michael that saw Clegg get a foot in the door at Old Trafford and his sliding doors moment arrived in 2000, when physio Rob Swire asked him to work with the injured duo Wes Brown and Roy Keane during the summer.

Clegg’s new book, published by Reach Sport, is out now

“Players were coming back in off holiday and seeing what Roy and Wes Brown were doing, they were doing a lot of boxing training, and then everybody wanted to do something,” said Clegg.

“The person that helped me the most was Roy. He used to box when he was a kid, so we did some boxing training. Wes used to love that as well, so those two encouraged the gym culture. Roy was always telling people to come and see me.”

The gym became the hub for players at Carrington, rather than their own specially designed meeting room upstairs at the training ground. Clegg also became a confidant to many and tried to steer them to sports psychologist Bill Beswick. The arrivals of Clegg and Beswick epitomized an era when United were the dominant pioneering force in English football and Sir Alex Ferguson would look for marginal gains to keep pushing progress.

“There weren’t many players going to Bill. I got to know him and I could tell he was a really sound guy with a lot of good principles and good ideas, so I was telling the players ‘go and see Bill, he’s great , just go and have a chat with him’,” adds Clegg, speaking to the MEN via Zoom from his current gym.

“He came to me in the end and said ‘you’re the psychologist here, not me, I wouldn’t have anyone in the office if you weren’t here’. That was brilliant, because we were encouraging each other and that’s what the whole place was about, encouragement.

“Fergie was the biggest and best psychologist of the lot, his job was observing players and seeing who was up for it, who was struggling, he could pick these things out and that’s why he was so successful. When I was there he did very little coaching but a lot of observing.

“He opened his mind to loads of things, which was really interesting to me. He was a very knowledgeable man, a real observer.”

As Clegg’s drills became more and more popular with the players, the Dukinfield-born coach saw all sorts, from Ronaldo’s dedication to Keane’s boxing to Fabien Barthez’s more prosaic reasons for getting on the weights.

“Fabien came to me, he loved training but he liked a fag as well. After training he’d go down to the laundrette and chat with the girls there, then he’d come to the gym, especially for his chest,” he said.

“I asked him why he didn’t do anything else and he said ‘oh, I just need a big chest’, I asked him why and it wasn’t about his football it was about his girlfriend.”

It was Keane that had first noticed the success Clegg could have and when the Irishman became Sunderland manager in 2006 he tried to tempt his former colleague with him. Clegg would n’t leave United to follow Keane on his first job but instead recommended Keane take his recently retired son from him, Michael, which eventually led to his own return to Old Trafford.

When players fled the nest at United, Clegg never made too much of an effort to keep in contact, aware that they needed to build up relationships at their own clubs. But some players remained in touch with him, including Ole Gunnar Solskjaer who tried to tempt him back in football a few years ago.

“When Roy came out of management, he got in touch to ask if he could come and train in the gym, because he loved boxing, so we trained together for a few years and through that Nicky Butt came and Paul Scholes would come with his kids,” he said.

“Ole Gunnar came to see me a couple of times, he came to see me about the possibility of going back, but I’d opened this business, I had a couple of partners and I’d moved on from football in the way that I was then, because you can only really have one gym where you’re creating the atmosphere and intensity.”

Clegg’s focus now is his Seed of Speed ​​business, based in Ashton under Lyne, but across 11 years at Old Trafford he enjoyed more than enough experiences to fill a book.

Mick Clegg: The Power and the Glory, published by Reach Sport, is available now

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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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