Van Nistelrooy: The ultimate goal machine

It took two goals against Fulham on a sunny afternoon at Old Trafford on 19 August 2001 for me to fall in love with Ruud van Nistelrooy.

It was the Dutch striker’s Premier League debut and after waiting a year for him to recover from a career-threatening knee injury to finally make his move from PSV Eindhoven, I had a new hero. I was eight years old and football mad.

We chanted ‘Ruuuuuuud!’ when he found the back of the net and initially the striker thought we were booing him. But you don’t boo someone who scores 36 times for you in his first season, winning the PFA Player’s Player of the Year award and netting in eight consecutive league games in the process.

Ruud’s detractors labelled him a tap-in merchant and, to some extent, that was true: 149 of his 150 goals for United came from inside the box.

Sam Carney, United fan and journalist says

"We chanted ‘Ruuuuuuud!’ when he found the back of the net and initially the striker thought we were booing him. But you don’t boo someone who scores 36 times for you in his first season, winning the PFA Player’s Player of the Year award and netting in eight consecutive league games in the process."

But watch his second at home to Fulham in March 2003, or his strike at Highbury later that season on the night we seized the advantage in the title race, and you’ll see the pace, power and composure that van Nistelrooy could combine to devastating effect, making him one of Europe’s most feared strikers.

On the rare occasions Ruud didn’t start, he was as dangerous stepping off the substitutes bench as the current United manager.

There was that memorable FA Cup third-round tie away to Aston Villa in January 2002, when he came off the bench to turn the game on its head. I leapt around the living room, just like the United fans who came spilling out of the North Stand and on to the pitch.

There were times he made me cry. That missed penalty against Arsenal in September 2003 would haunt us for months, as the Gunners embarked on their mammoth unbeaten run. But he’d later redeem himself, smashing home a spot-kick in front of the Stretford End to end their run at 49 games – and you could see how much it meant to him.

As the Treble winners aged and Sir Alex started to rebuild, Ruud’s goals kept us competitive. He became the club’s record European marksman and stretched his record run of scoring in consecutive Premier League games to 10. There were FA Cup and League Cup triumphs too, although van Nistelrooy missed out on the latter in 2006 after he was ruthlessly dropped by Ferguson.

Cristiano Ronaldo and Ruud van Nistelrooy lift the FA Cup in 2004.
Cristiano Ronaldo and van Nistelrooy lift the FA Cup in 2004.

In hindsight Sir Alex was right, as he usually was. For all van Nistelrooy’s brilliance, the team had only won one league title in five seasons with Ruud in the side.

In order for Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo to fulfil their huge potential, something had to give – and that was the sale of the single-minded striker that summer.

As rumours of his exit started to surface, I remember trying to convince myself that somehow he would stay, and it was a real heartbreaker to see him move to Real Madrid.

Ruud van Nistelrooy with the Premier League title in 2003
Ruud scored 44 in all competitions, 25 of them in the league, as we were crowned champions in 2003.

By now in his early thirties, Ruud continued to have a real impact in front of goal in Spain, but there’s no doubt that United were lucky to have him at his absolute peak: 219 games, 150 goals. Some ratio.

While in Spain, Ruud would compare scoring goals to coaxing ketchup out of a bottle. “You try, but it doesn’t come out. And when it comes out, it all does at once,” he told Real Madrid team-mate Gonzalo Higuain when the Argentinian was going through a dry spell in front of goal.

Van Nistelrooy rarely had such ketchup issues at United. The years after he left may have been among the most successful in the club’s history as league titles and the Champions League returned to M16, but in my eyes, we still haven’t had a striker so ruthless in the box as Ruud.

This feature first appeared in the December 2019 edition of Inside United, the official Manchester United magazine.

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