Ruud and Robin’s seasons in the sun
What are the greatest individual seasons in Manchester United's history?
You could argue the case for Cristiano Ronaldo’s 2007/08 campaign, when the Portuguese plundered 42 goals to help the Reds to a European and league double.
Or, perhaps, the mind could be cast further back, to Eric Cantona’s immense contribution in 1995/96 after returning from suspension – United won 1-0 seven times after Christmas on the way to the title, with Le Roi scoring the winner in five of them.
The likes of George Best, Denis Law and Sir Bobby Charlton – all Ballon d’Or winners while at Old Trafford – could also be involved in this argument, as well as a number of goalkeepers, defenders and midfielders, who don’t tend to grab the headlines as much as those plying their trade further forward.
In the two-and-a-bit decades I’ve been watching football, the magnum opuses of Ruud van Nistelrooy and Robin van Persie – 10 years apart, in 2002/03 and 2012/13 – take some beating.
The Dutch masters were both outstanding, picking up the Golden Boot as they helped their sides to the Premier League title, so let's examine those halcyon seasons in more detail…
Records tumbled for van Nistelrooy in 2002/03, with his 44 goals in all competitions unsurpassed by any player in the Premier League era (Mo Salah equalled it, from the same amount of games, 52, in 2018). The former PSV Eindhoven man wasn’t just the leading goalscorer in the top-flight, with 25 efforts, but he was also the continent’s leading marksman, netting 12 times to topple AC Milan’s Filippo Inzaghi, even though the Reds were knocked out at the quarter-final stage by Real Madrid. As if that wasn’t enough, Ruud equalled his own record of scoring in consecutive Premier League matches, netting in each of our last eight – seven wins, one draw – to help us pip Arsenal to the title.
PICK OF THE GOALS
With 74 goals between them, it’s perhaps no surprise that Ruud and Robin conjured up efforts worthy of the United pantheon during their legendary campaigns. But van Nistelrooy’s marvellous, swashbuckling run and finish against Fulham was arguably his finest in five years at the club, while van Persie’s second on that euphoric April evening against Villa can lay claim to being one of the finest volleys ever seen at the Theatre of Dreams. You could also reel off the number of big-game moments the pair churned out, not least Ruud's crisp chip at Highbury on the night we took control of the title race, and RVP's late, late free-kick at the Etihad, plus, of course, two goals each against Liverpool...
Strangely enough, both Ruud and Robin were overlooked for individual awards in their defining United campaigns, despite claiming the Players’ Player of the Year gong in the previous season (2001/02 for Ruud, 2011/12 for Robin, while at Arsenal). Ruud missed out on that title, and the prestigious Football Writers’ bauble, in favour of his great rival Henry, while Gareth Bale took both prizes in 2013 after a scintillating individual term which saw him score 21 times in the Premier League.
PRAISE FOR THE PAIR
"I'll reserve judgement on whether Ruud can be better than Denis Law. I can't go back on my old heroes and they are two different types of players anyway. Ruud has had an incredible season and is getting better all the time. He's the best centre-forward in the world. There's no question about that, in my mind." Sir Alex Ferguson, 2003.
“[Ruud] always keeps his cool and has the ability to find the unguarded corners of the net with unerring accuracy. You would never back against him in a one-on-one.” Frank Stapleton, 2003.
"In terms of impact, Robin has made as big an impact as any player I can imagine. [Eric] Cantona was an incredible impact player, I've had some great strikers, maybe 10 great strikers. We had an expectation of him. He was sensational last year, but Arsene [Wenger] said he was better than I'd think, after I'd done the deal, and he was right. He has never disappointed us.” Sir Alex Ferguson, 2013.
“Robin is a great goalscorer and that’s why Alex [Ferguson] likes him. It’s just paradise for any team’s supporters when they’ve got someone like that who can potentially score from nothing. He’s got this skill and if his team are playing well, then he will score the goals.” Sir Bobby Charlton, 2013.
Whichever forward you cherish most in your mind, the title success of 2002/03 and 2012/13 will forever be intertwined with the goalscoring exploits of these two Dutch sharp-shooters.
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