Published: 10 Aug 2006
In a way he was a victim of his own brilliance and I wonder if we ever got to see the best of him at Old Trafford?
When Ruud arrived in July 2001 he was meant to be the man who would loft us back to the top of the European game, the player who could have made the difference in the games V Real in 2000 & Bayern in 2001. We still had all of the swashbuckling crossing if Beckham, the pace of Giggs on the wing and with Roy Keane and a back four that was still pretty strong, Ruud was to be the man to fire us to the top of the European game.
His arrival along with Juan Veron in the summer of 2001 was greeted well but few could have predicted how that first season was to turn out. Instead of Ruud playing alongside a partner, he was to become the lone striker, with Veron, Scholes and others forming a midfield quintet that would produce the goods. It led to unfamiliar patterns of play, players played out of position and 6 defeats in the first 15 Premiership games of the 2001-2002 season. But one thing was sure, Van Nistelrooy was lethal and when you think of his first season that he plundered 20+ goals, was United's player of the season and was the Players player of the season, it was a phenomenal achievement for a player not long back from cruciate ligament treatment.
The following season, with Cole & Yorke both departed, Forlan on the bench and Solskjaer often deployed wide, Van Nistelrooy made the lone striker role his own with some blistering displays. Giggs operated just behind him for a lot of the season, resulting in the team being more fluent but above all else resulting in goals. Ruud hit 44 in all competitions, his strikes crucial as United caught Arsenal napping to win the title back from Highbury. But a key factor of Van Nistelrooy's goals were Beckham's crosses and then in the summer of 2003 Beckham was sold.
Over the next two seasons we were to witness Cristiano Ronaldo trying to fill Beckham's boots. How frustrating must it have been for Ruud to see the full back taken on, beaten, taken on again and the ball flying over the crossbar, when once it was put on his forehead, chest or knee with Archer like accuracy? The FA Cup was won in 2004, with a contrasting final appearance in 2005 and then the best soothsayer in the world could not have foreseen things that would happen over the following twelve months. Roy Keane, a huge influence on Van Nistelrooy, was shown the door and an American Millionaire bought the Club using little or none of his own money. Van Nistelrooy was benched for the Carling Cup final of 2006 amid rumours he was very unhappy, then his career followed a similar path to Beckham's. He played few games and went to Real Madrid. Gone, kaput, the end of his five seasons at Old Trafford.
It wouldn't be fair to say he underperformed for us, but as a football club, United definitely underachieved with such a predator to call on. Five years produced one title, one FA Cup win and one League Cup win. The closest we got to winning in Europe was the 2002 Champions League semi final as we lost on away goals to Bayer Leverkeusen. After that our progress was halted earlier & earlier each season, until it was group stage elimination last time round. We had bought the player meant to make us more potent in Europe but in reality we had slid sadly backwards.
So often in his United career Ruud was the man to break the deadlock in tight games. He was always likely to get on the end of something & score. His goals were marvellous, ranging from tap in's to ones he controlled on his chest & smashed home, to goals involving great teamwork. He seemed to be able to do what Cole & Yorke did in tandem but as his suppliers of chances were sold, I think we lost something in such a special player.
To see him go in the manner he did was extremely sad. Roy Keane called for Ferguson to break up the side in 2001 but Ferguson didn't take heed until 2003. The players brought in or coming through the youths didn't seem to match those leaving which inevitably led to Ruud questioning Ferguson. Shortly after Ruud was on his way too, sold for a pittance to Madrid. I've heard people say that fee for a player of that age is fantastic, but why so did Chelsea pay their crazy sums to Milan for Shevchenko? We had a player equally as good & left him go for one third of Shevchenko's price.
In terms of goalscoring, work rate & sheer finishing power Ruud has had no equal in my lifetime. I didn't get to see Denis Law play, nor George Best nor Bobby Charlton, but I did see players like McClair, Cole, Yorke, Hughes, Robins, Stapleton, Solskjaer and on and on. None of them match Van Nistelrooy's scoring ability. Not only would Ruud bag you the first in a deadlocked game, he was never satisfied with just one. Remember his 4 V Sparta Prague in late 2004? Remember him coming off the bench as we trailed Villa 2-0 in the 2002 FA Cup and scoring the equaliser & winner? Remember him scoring home & away V Real Madrid in 2003? All in all he was some player. And now he's gone to Madrid and Alex Ferguson & Carlos Queiroz judgment will be severely tested next season. If we don't challenge for the title, fingers will inevitably be pointed at a Management team who played Ruud as a lone striker for virtually all of his Old Trafford career and who sold him and his 150 goals in 5 seasons along with him.
We landed four titles in the five seasons before his arrival and only one title in his five seasons with us. Certainly something doesn't add up. Given the fact he netted with amazing consistency, I can only conclude that we underperformed in the five seasons we had him due to reasons beyond Ruud's control.
Goodbye Ruud, sorry to see you go, you were some player for us.
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