Retrospective #11: The joy of Ruud van Nistelrooy
It was a goal that ran out of superlatives as quickly as it happened. Time was motionless. To a degree it was unexpected, though there was no shock factor. The date: Saturday 22, March, 2003. Manchester United were 1-0 up against Fulham at Old Trafford, the protagonist of the piece putting them ahead from the penalty spot; his second should have won goal of the season.
Picking up the ball inside the centre circle, he shrugged off Sylvain Legwinski, and began to accelerate towards goal. Sidestepping another challenge, he raced past two Fulham players, and then beat defender Andy Melville before slotting the ball past Maik Taylor with a cool finish. It was his 28th goal of the season, hard-pressed to find anyone of the previous 27 that was met with the same ecstatic ovation. Then again, we are talking about Ruud van Nistelrooy, an individual who made it a habit of defying belief: whether on the pitch or in the record books.
That goal may never have taken place if not for Sir Alex Ferguson standing by him after his initial move to the club broke down. Before first contact, Van Nistelrooy started out as a sweeper at amateur level before being converted into a striker at Den Bosch, and his impressionable start to life as a professional saw him transferred to Heerenveen. It was there when everyone started to take notice, including PSV, who signed him for €6.3m after one season at the Friesland club. The Eindhoven club had a special player on their hands, one that started to draw comparisons with Marco van Basten, though many were quick to point out that, despite their knack for goals, there were differences.
“They are both excellent players but different,” said Rinus Michels, who had coached Van Basten with the national team. “Van Basten was more of an all-round striker. He had better control and was better at outplaying opponents. He was a great finisher but there was a lot more to his game. Van Nistelrooy is a more decisive finisher. He is excellent at going for goal and is speedy and dangerous.”
Though comparisons were flattering, given the former AC Milan and Ajax forward happened to be his idol; “He is upper, upper class as a striker, the best ever,” Van Nistelrooy recalled. “From the minute I saw him play, I was hooked.” The goals flowed at PSV. He was remarkably scoring a goal a game. The club insisted he wouldn’t be sold on the cheap and they stuck to that promise. Interest came from England in the shape of both Arsenal and Chelsea. However, it would be Manchester United that snapped him up for £18.6m; Arsène Wenger was among those who considered the striker too expensive. A chequered injury record concerned his future employees and when he broke down in training rupturing his ACL, his dream move looked to be over. However, a year later the move was resuscitated and the Dutch marksman wasted no time settling in.
36 goals in 49 games in his debut season was a sign of things to come – a goal on his debut in the Community Shield against Liverpool whetted the appetite, two more on his league debut at home to Fulham and those that had been familiar with his exploits in Holland started to brace themselves. His price-tag, initially a record fee, was paid back.
The brilliant thing about Van Nistelrooy was, and still is, that you get what you see. A quintessential ‘number 9’, he never seemed to score the same goal, despite attaining 150 for the club. He was big and strong enough to ward off challengers from the mightiest of defenders, in his earlier years, nimble enough to beat them in a foot race. His aerial prowess was slightly underrated, and you couldn’t help but feel even when the action during the game didn’t involve him, he was thinking of ways to score his next goal.
Though he showed signs of being impatient; “If I don’t get the service or if I don’t the ball in the box, where I want it, I start drifting into midfield. I go and look for the ball. I try to be important for the team in other areas.”
The greatest shame with Van Nistelrooy is that he had the misfortune of being in a transitional phase at the club, only winning one league championship in his five seasons with Manchester United: ironically the club had won four of the five in the years after. However, that doesn’t take away from what he brought, often maligned for the crime of ‘scoring’, a stigma attached to most Dutch strikers. As scoring goals weren’t the job of a striker, what did people expect him to do: defend? He used to be one, of course. I’m sure as good as he may think he would have still been. There wasn’t a chance anyone was going to stop him doing what he loves. Ronaldo, aka O Fenômeno, once said he lived to score goals. There’s nothing more in the world he enjoyed, the same applied to Ruud.
“When it comes to losing with [Manchester] United, I feel solely responsible for it,” he once said. “I can’t help it. My brain will work like mad after a defeat. I want to know where I have made the wrong decisions, how I could have changed things for this fantastic club.”
If you think about it, most of his goals were eye-grabbing. The run against Fulham may have been the most sensational, but if you go back and watch some of his finest efforts, a master class in the art of finishing, any young striker wanting to make it in the game must, as a requisite, study him.
His control was as good as any forward of the last 20 years, he struck the ball sweet and true, it was as crisp as the finest Armani shirt. The one fear goalkeepers have is of a striker in his element, whereas most go through periods where the goal is hard to find, Van Nistelrooy rarely struggled. Given that he arguably played for some of the weaker sides under Sir Alex Ferguson in the Premier League (this is not a slight), it was incredible what he was pulling off week after week. Whenever the ball found him inside the penalty box, there was always one outcome due to his breathtaking instinctiveness, unless he decided to give the keeper a reprieve. It was on the continent, in the European Cup, where he did fine damage. Only Raúl González has scored more goals than the Dutchman in the competition, with Manchester United his tally read: 38 goals in 47 games, a club record. Looking at the history books, only one player has topped the scoring charts in a European Cup season more than him, one of the finest strikers of them all: Gerd Müller. Van Nistelrooy sits alongside Lionel Messi, Ferenc Puskás, Eusébio and Jean-Pierre Papin with three titles, all won with Manchester United.
Though disappointingly, he never managed reached the final of the competition; elimination in 2002 to Bayer Leverkusen in the semi-finals was the furthest he got, again a cruel misfortune that since his departure, the club entered one of their more successful periods in the competition.
Despite the absence of a plethora of silverware, and strange as this may sound, in his first three seasons at least Manchester United played football that could be equal to what is seen at Old Trafford today. His link-up with Paul Scholes, controversial back then given the formation change, looking back was the perfect combination. Scholes, one of the preeminent playmakers of his day, was a perfect foil for the goal-scorer. It only took a single pass and he was clever enough to play one that could cut through a defence and bring Van Nistelrooy into play. David Beckham and Ryan Giggs on the flank were a strikers’ dream. It wouldn’t be surprising to know if he signed just to feed of the two wingers. Beckham in particular with his pinpoint crossing were a delight for Ruud; I could be wrong but there’s a statistic out there that says he’s assisted the Dutchmen the most during his time. Even if it is indeed wrong, there’s a hint it may even be true given the numerous times a Beckham cross was converted by Van Nistelrooy.
The hallmark of a great striker is that he continuously improves as the years go on, especially at the height of the powers. For Van Nistelrooy, it was the case during his time in England. His most prolific season was his second, which ended with the league win, 44 goals in 52 games. He was two shy of Denis Law’s club record of most goals in a single season. Though that campaign was still special, he ended it scoring in the 2-1 win over Everton at Goodison Park, the tenth consecutive game with a goal – a feat no player at the club has achieved. The previous year, his debut season, he became the first player to score in eight consecutive league games. It seemed everything he touched was turning to gold, becoming something of a manager’s dream. Van Nistelrooy approached an apex, untouchable status. A PFA Player of the Year that season confirmed that. His unceremonious departure was as spectacular as his glorious arrival.
It’s hard to say whether he was the perfect striker, though at times it felt like he was, because at his optimum he easily rivalled the finest in history. Would he go down as the club’s greatest striker? In all honesty that’s subjective, though he has the goals to back any argument in his favour. How will those who witnessed his five years remember him? It’s easy to say just the goals, all 150 of them, but it’s the majesty and the way he carried himself, the fine strikes, the elegant finishing and sheer ruthlessness. He was: ‘Ruthless Ruud’ after all.
This was written by Mohamed Moallim. He is the editor of the superb La Croqueta, where he muses about the wonders of Dutch and Spanish football. Mohamed is also a columnist for FourFourTwo and World Football Columns. You can follow him on Twitter.