During my time watching Manchester United, there has been one goal machine that stands above all others, a man who had a finishing style unmatched by others who have worn a Red Devils’ shirt. When he first arrived in a United shirt, he wondered why fans were booing him whenever he scored before he was informed that there were merely acclaiming him through his first name. This was to be a sound that would punctuate United matches with an alarming regularity and alacrity. The man, of whom I speak, is indubitably, Ruud Van Nistelrooy. The Dutch striker was simply a phenomenal finisher, a man who was born to score goals, who knew how to garner an extra yard of space at the key time to arrive precisely when he needed to, in order to supply a deft finishing touch to a move. When you listen to him talk you are aware that he is a clever man and that it is perhaps this quality married with his astonishing finishing ability which led rise to his iconic and legendary status at Manchester United. Van Nistelrooy scored 150 goals in only 219 games for United, which is quite simply extraordinary, demonstrating how easily and repeatedly he found the net and how difficult it was for opponents to prevent him scoring. This goals per game ratio of 0.68 is superior to any of the top ten all time United scorers currently, showing his efficiency and effectiveness as a goal scorer. As Louis Saha articulates Van Nistelrooy was an unbelievable striker with a wide arsenal of skills:
“He has the ultimate mentality of a striker. He’s always concentrating so he can be in the right position to anticipate a pass or be in the right place to receive it. That’s what makes him so effective. There is nobody in the world like him. David Trezeguet is a similar player but he doesn’t have the same quality, control and technique. Ruud keeps control of the ball with three players trying to get it off him. He is the complete forward.”
Van Nistelrooy was first rumoured to come to United in 2000 however injury difficulties made the move impossible at that juncture and he made the transfer a year later, for a then hefty sum of 19 million pounds. His scoring form at PSV Eindhoven, albeit in the Dutch league, had already gained him a fearsome reputation, having bagged 62 goals in 67 appearances for the side. In his first season for United in 2001-2 he enjoyed incredible success, scoring in his debuts in the Charity Shield and the League and scoring 23 goals in 32 league games, form of such a high calibre which earned him the PFA Players’ Player of the Year accolade on the back of his sterling efforts in his maiden season. He was always looking to improve, as Van Nistelrooy admits it was important for him to visualize where he wanted to go and what he wanted to achieve and this would have helped to spur him onto greater heights in the following seasons. Often, he would look at his abilities and achievements in a self critical way as only the top players will do and he particularly admires those players who had this kind of authentic, down to earth mentality. Players who did not get too hung up on the materialistic riches which football had to offer but instead conducted themselves in a professional and considered manner, with the game their primary focus. To this end, the player Van Nistelrooy mentions to exemplify these traits is Paul Scholes, someone who didn’t conduct interviews and whose stylistic approach was a simple hoodie and jeans for training, yet a player whom Ruud describes as one of the best the world has ever seen.
The following season, he won the Golden Boot, one strike ahead of his erstwhile rival for the award Thierry Henry and won the Player of the Season, as he appeared to be going from strength to strength. In particular it was his passion, desire, drive and determination to score as many as possible which further outlined his appetite for goals, scoring three hat tricks in the League that year. When we contemplate our current predicament, that it is now four and a half years since someone in a United shirt scored a league hat trick, you truly begin to appreciate what a remarkable and skilled striker Van Nistelrooy truly was. His goal against Fulham where he ran from the halfway line from this season is a moment Van Nistelrooy himself admits was the most exceptional point of his career, as a footballer he says you had to know what you were good at and what your limitations are and focus on those strengths, that was why he concentrated on scoring inside the box, where he was at his most dangerous and ruthless. Van Nistelrooy opines that the best player he played with was Brazilian Ronaldo at Real Madrid, as those types of goals were more of his standard and that Ronaldo had a far more natural ability in those types of situations that he did. Another noteworthy aspect of Van Nistelrooy’s scoring efforts was his Continental strike rate, in other words how predatory he was in Europe. He had further improved upon his ten Champions league goals the season prior with another twelve which earned him UEFA’s seal of approval with the epithet of the best striker in Europe.
By scoring in the first couple of matches of the 2003-04 season Van Nistelrooy had scored in ten consecutive league matches, a record which was to stand for over a decade before Vardy overtook it. At the time, Van Nistelrooy couldn’t have been more gracious in ceding the record to the Leicester front man publicly saying that records were there to be broken. This shows what a classy, considerate and thoughtful gentleman Van Nistelrooy truly is, in how he portrays himself through his intelligent words and actions. Of course, Van Nistelrooy was also at the centre of the Battle of Old Trafford, missing a last minute penalty which would have won United the game; he was then attacked by Martin Keown as tempers bubbled up and players were caught up in the cavalcade of emotions of the fierce rivalry between Red Devils and Gunners. Vieira, who had been sent off earlier for a second bookable offence on Van Nistelrooy accused him of cheating and many players received censure for their part in the proceedings. Van Nistelrooy recounted later that he was scarcely aware of what was happening around him so devastated and surprised at missing the penalty. Roy Keane sums up the respect and standards to which Van Nistelrooy held himself to and the esteem in which he held him:
“I would never have expected Ruud Van Nistelrooy to miss a penalty. Because Ruud Van Nistelrooy was brilliant. Ruud was the best finisher, ever, but especially in one on one situations, just the keeper to beat. When Ruud was going through one on one, I never doubted him. Some players would be going, “******* hell – hard and low? Or dink it over?”, but when Ruud was through there might as well have been no goalkeeper.
The season ended in FA Cup glory with Van Nistelrooy bagging a brace, once more showcasing further proof of his big game mentality and temperament.
Although the 2004-5 was one hampered by injury problems for Van Nistelrooy which were to dog him through the remainder of his career, he still continued scoring regularly and there can have been fewer goals sweeter than the penalty he scored against Arsenal at Old Trafford which ended the Invincibles’ unbeaten run. Redemption of the highest quality had been rendered and the misery of the previous year had been replaced with the sweet joy of victory over the bitterest of rivals. As he recounts later when he reviewed his celebration it was slightly embarrassingly vociferous but in taking the penalty Van Nistelrooy provided further firm substantiation that he had a superb mentality, resilience and fortitude in the most important moments. Van Nistelrooy was retrospectively suspended for three games due to a foul on Ashley Cole which the officials had missed but the feeling of accomplishment could not have been dampened by such trivialities. The season was a disappointing one in terms of trophies accumulated, with a rare year where none were gained due to United somehow contriving to lose an FA Cup Final against Arsenal which we absolutely dominated in every aspect until the penalty shootout.
In the final season, 2005-06, of Van Nistelrooy’s time at United despite considerable time on the bench, he finished second highest scorer in the league to Henry. He was being punished for a falling out with Cristiano Ronaldo where had told the Portuguese to “Go crying to your daddy”. This had been a thinly veiled jibe at the closeness of Ronaldo’s bond with assistant coach Carlos Queiroz, but Ronaldo having lost his father a mere 8 months earlier mistakenly assumed it was in reference to his and, understandably, burst into floods of tears. That summer, Van Nistelrooy made the move to Real Madrid to the despair and disappointment of his team mates, notably Rio Ferdinand who had this to say regarding the Dutchman when picking his all time United eleven:
“[Van Nistelrooy] was the most devastating finisher I have ever played with. We could win a game by three or four goals but, if he hadn’t scored, he would sulk. But in order to become a world-beating striker like Ruud, you need to have that attitude. He lived and breathed goals. I tried to make him stay through speaking to his agent but it was too late. One of the big disappointments in my time at Manchester United was seeing the club let him go.
When asked directly about whether he regrets moving to Real Madrid at the time he did, given the incredible success United were to enjoy in the years directly following this, Van Nistelrooy is quite honest in saying that he wouldn’t have missed out on the opportunity that Real Madrid presented him with. This he says was a new, fresh challenge, an opportunity to test himself once again, since he had fallen into a comfort zone at United. His levels he believes were 1 or 2% lower than they had been, particularly in his final season and for a footballer even such small increments are vital at the highest level of the professional game. What is obvious when he talks of United is his understanding of how we are meant to play, with an attacking adventure and verve that was characteristic of time at United, when players were allowed to express themselves and there is a clear understanding of the United way of playing and how much he reveled in how this particular style allowed him so much service to supplement his incredible goal tally for the Red Devils.
Ruud Van Nistelrooy was a hero for many fans during his time at the club, not least my brother who purchased his shirt. He was so intelligent, so reliable, composed and unique, a special talent whom United were incredibly lucky to have. He epitomized everything that you could want in a striker, someone who’s myriad of abilities and attributes were coupled with an understanding of a forward’s role in terms of runs and spaces which was simply outstanding. Not just that but Van Nistelrooy helped fire United to success during a relatively lean period, between Champions League successes, with Premier League, League Cup and FA Cups won, whilst Sir Alex was in the middle of a rebuilding process centred around the two prodigious young talents of Rooney and Ronaldo. Sir Alex Ferguson himself thought Van Nistelrooy was in a class of his own and it seems fitting to allow our legendary manager the final words on the greatest goal machine United have ever had:
“Ruud van Nistelrooy has been the best – without doubt the best finisher we have ever had at this club. We have had some brilliant centre forwards at United…….But van Nistelrooy has been the best, absolutely the best finisher. If I had played alongside Ruud the problem would have been getting a chance ahead of him.”