BY KARAN TEJWANI
Ask any Premier League fan about the greatest forwards he or she has seen in their lifetime and a large majority of your responses will include the likes of Alan Shearer, Robbie Fowler, Didier Drogba, Wayne Rooney, Thierry Henry or Luis Suárez. Very rarely will you come across a fan who brings up Ruud van Nistelrooy, a man who aced his job of leading the line and was a monster for defenders to come up against.
Perhaps it was the timing of van Nistelrooy’s reign of dominance that puts him in such relative anonymity; the era between Manchester United’s treble winning heroics – when the club were going through a dry spell in terms of trophies – and the emergence of Cristiano Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney who spearheaded the club onto domestic and continental supremacy.
He would score them all: volleys, headers, tap-ins, penalties and wonderful solo goals, and it wasn’t just in the Premier League with Manchester United, he did it at home in the Netherlands with Heerenveen and PSV Eindhoven as well a spell in Germany with Hamburg which was sandwiched between two stints in Spain with Real Madrid and Málaga before calling it a day.
His career was of goal scoring greatness right from the off. After joining Heerenveen from the side that bought him to prominence, Den Bosch, he amassed 13 goals in 31 games – a fine record for a 21-year-old playing in a relatively poor side. He was immediately coveted by Dutch giants PSV who signed the young forward for a €6.3 million fee, then a record for a footballer moving between Dutch clubs.
He would add more to his game while at Eindhoven, combining his obvious skill as a dominant forward with blistering pace and unmatched precision that would help him win the Dutch Footballer of the Year award in 1998. He netted 38 times in 46 games in the 1998-99 season as PSV finished third in the Dutch Eredivisie and qualified for the following season’s UEFA Champions League.
And if the first season was good, the next was even better – 32 goals in 33 games – including 29 in the league alone as he finished as the league’s top scorer for a second season running and helped PSV clinch their 15th domestic title, finishing a whopping 16 points clear of nearest challengers Heerenveen. Van Nistelrooy was now a target for the elite of European football and Manchester United, as well as Real Madrid, competed for the young forward’s signature.
But it was his own body that would let him down, for a year at least. A cruciate ligament injury, suffered during a training session with PSV that restricted a possible transfer elsewhere, but that didn’t keep him away from the back pages. The injury kept him out for a large part of the season and restricted him to just 12 games in which he scored five.
But Sir Alex Ferguson was adamant he would get the deal done, so much so that he kept track with his recovery progress for a year, and when the time came, he swooped. £19million was paid to acquire van Nistelrooy’s services – a British record at the time, and it was worth every penny. Quite possibly burdened by the hefty fee, he managed to show none of it while he was playing and over the course of his time at the club, he would score some sensational goals.
Manchester United ignited a new desire in van Nistelrooy and one of his most brilliant goals came against Fulham at Old Trafford in 2003. It demonstrated to the world what he was all about. Picking up the ball in the centre-circle, he impressively shrugged off two challenges before setting off on a run where he was untouchable. Leaving several defenders for dead before finding himself in acres of space and finishing with aplomb, despite having an awkward body position. He had the entire stadium up on its feet, and received a vote of approval from the boss himself.
That goal against Fulham was the start of a historic run – one where he’d score in each of the following nine games. His mammoth 10-game scoring run was eclipsed by Jamie Vardy in 2015. He added several other mind-boggling goals, with teams such as Arsenal, Deportivo La Coruna, Liverpool and Basel amongst so many others falling to the individual brilliance of the Dutchman.
Van Nistelrooy was just as good in Europe as he was domestically. The fourth highest goal getter in the history of the competition behind Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi and Raúl, his 56 goals for four different sides is a fine record for a man who never played in the final, let alone won the competition as he finished as the competition’s top scorer in the 2001-02, 2002-03 and 2004-05 seasons. Add to that, only Lionel Messi has a better goals-per-game ratio than the Dutchman’s 0.74.
However, it is the volume of trophies that are obvious in their absence in van Nistelrooy’s spell of magnificence in Manchester. Just four trophies – an FA Cup, Premier League, Community Shield and English League Cup came by in his five years at the club – the last of which he was absent for. It’s a surprisingly low tally for a team managed by the great Sir Alex Ferguson, but that can be put down to the rise of the challengers.
Arsenal had their “Invincibles” phase in that period and Chelsea were under new ownership as well as José Mourinho emerged as a coaching force. AC Milan, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich were all the key figures on the European stage and left no room for the Old Trafford side to pick up and improve on their European success of 1999.
Van Nistelrooy’s spell at the Theatre of Dreams came to an end in 2006 after an alleged spat with Sir Alex Ferguson. He left Manchester and joined another club of immense pedigree – Real Madrid. His stint in England ended with an astounding 150 goals in 219 games, averaging 0.68 goals a game. Having left for just £10.5million, Real Madrid would’ve felt that they bagged a bargain.
And they sure did. Within a year of his signing, he already helped the club to a La Liga title and was the winner of the Pichichi trophy – the award for finishing as the league’s highest goal scorer (25) – including a run of scoring in seven successive games. This was followed by another 20 goals across all competitions in the 2007-08 campaign as well as another league title.
But that would be it for van Nistelrooy’s run at the top of his game. He would suffer another serious knee injury; the same which kept him out for so long prior to signing for Manchester United. He made just 16 appearances for Los Blancos over the next year and a half.
Hamburg and Málaga would see the final years of van Nistelrooy’s career. Both clubs had different objectives and the forward adhered to each one, despite his increasing age. He didn’t quite set the leagues on fire, but he did show off the skills that made him such a star in Manchester and often earned the praise of the watching crowd.
The Ruud van Nistelrooy of 2001 to 2005 was one of the most complete forwards one is ever likely to see. Brave, lethal and supremely confident, he was a menace to the opposition and was a joy to watch. He probably didn’t win the trophies his goals deserved, but he is still regarded very highly as one of the greatest forwards of his generation and is arguably one of the most comprehensive strikers English football has ever witnessed.