Robin van Persie was capable of brilliance and petulance

John Nicholson

Robin van Persie was one of the greatest and most underrated goalscorers of his generation, albeit one with a bit of a temper.


Who’s this then?
Robin van Persie is still only 37 years of age. Born in Rotterdam, the six foot striker played for just four clubs: Feyenoord, Arsenal, Manchester United and Fenerbahçe. A prolific forward, in an 18-year career he scored 272 times in 593 games at club level and is Holland’s top scorer with 50 in 102 internationals.

While at his peak he became a ruthless goal machine, it took Van Persie until his mid-20s before he really hit his stride. He’d started at Feyenoord in 2001 and played three years for ‘De club van het volk’. His first season was not promising, yielding zero goals in 17 games, though he did play in the UEFA Cup final. But his second saw him hit 15 goals in 28 games and this brought him to the attention of a lot of European scouts.

A falling out with coach Bert van Marwijk (later to also happen at international level) saw him benched frequently the following season. The club wanted £5million for him but Arsenal eventually only paid the incredibly low fee of £2.5million. Van Persie did already have disciplinary issues, being a man whose pan of emotional milk was always ready to boil over, and it’s thought this may have reduced interest in him.

He didn’t get off to a great start at Highbury, regularly finding himself used as a sub. The old trouble with the red mist didn’t help. He was sent off for a foul on Graeme Le Saux which his manager refused to defend and he spent more time on the sidelines as a result. But in his first two seasons in north London, Van Persie played 79 games and scored 21 times. A decent but hardly stellar return.

The following two were a lot better with 24 in 52 games, but he was out injured in 2007/08 with knee knack and other tweaks and creaks.

Arsene Wenger kept patience with him, though, and it paid off because in the next five seasons Van Persie scored over 20 goals in four of them, only falling short in 2009/10 due to those familiar injury issues.

His last at Arsenal in 2011/12 was easily his finest as he scored a mighty 37 in just 48 games and was, at times, utterly unplayable. These were his glory days. He won the Premier League Golden Boot.

The move to Manchester United at the end of that season for £22.5million was, to say the least, unexpected. Now 29 and at the peak of his form, clearly Van Persie wanted to win a title and knew he had no chance of doing so at the Emirates. His excuses for leaving were aggravating to Arsenal fans who saw through them, but nothing could keep him there.

He was great from day one at Old Trafford, netted 30 goals and basically won United the league, even scoring a hat-trick to seal the title win. Then Sir Alex Ferguson left. Even the terrified, wide-eyed, newly appointed boss David Moyes couldn’t knock the goals out of him and Van Persie netted 18 in 28 games in his second season. But injuries were hampering his form and by the time Moyes had been put in the skip and Louis van Gaal had turned up, it was to be his last season.

There followed three years in Turkey – one good, two not so good – before returning to his home club of Feyenoord to wind up his career for two seasons, 45 games and 25 goals, winning the KNVB Cup in the process.

His total of 695 games and 322 goals is impressive, especially for a player who was so often injured. If Van Persie had enjoyed prime fitness throughout his career, he would surely have broken a lot more goalscoring records.


Why the love?
Absolutely fantastic goals and plenty of them. Some real beauties, especially volleys. The boy loved a volley and could do it to perfection. Proper volleys too, not the all too often misnamed striking of a ball after it has bounced.

This was no tapper-in from a metre out, no in-off-his-arse merchant, no shinner or scuffer of lucky deflections. No. This was a goal-scoring artist. That’s why fans loved him.

Yet, he was a bit of an odd bod, was RVP, and that’s what gave him his greatness and why he was loved by his fans. Capable of scoring absolutely extraordinary goals, the like of which only the finest could ever hope to replicate. But also prone to childish petulance and anger.

Petulance and anger is overlooked as one of the things fans love about a player. They get put to one side as a weakness in a player’s emotional make-up, but who doesn’t love to see one of their own pushing a goalkeeper into the net or booting someone up the arse after a hard tackle?

We’re encouraged to disapprove of such things but it is an emotional game, or it was before corporate culture began to try to strangle humanity out of the sport in case it gets in the way of revenue generation. I maintain that nothing allies fans to a player more than some act of random retribution, or just having a stand-up fight in the centre-circle. Twatting the opposition is surely one of football’s greatest traditions. And RVP knew how to twat.

While there’s no doubt that the man had a temper on him, it was that fire in his belly which drove him on as a great striker. It made him brave and unafraid to try new things. While this may be one of the reasons he was so frequently injured, when he got a long streak of fitness he could be unstoppable.

Capable of scoring with either foot, with a header, short or long range, he could do it all. However, he never looked like an athlete with piston engine thighs. There was always something a little awkward, angular and bony about him even though all his limbs worked perfectly in harmony.

The way he left Arsenal was an odd moment and he probably blotted his copybook somewhat at that time. There was a lot of waffle: “I always listen to the little boy inside of me in these situations…What does he want? That boy was screaming for Man United.” Yeah, OK Robin. We believe you. Pity the little boy isn’t also screaming, “shut the feck up and leave me alone, I told you not to tell anyone about me”. He really just fancied winning a title – something he’d never be able to do at Arsenal – and United was the place to do it.

But then show me someone who hasn’t spouted some nonsense in their life and I’ll show you someone who is dull. He comes from an arty background with a sculptor father and a painter and jewellery designer mother, so maybe it’s in his make-up.


Four great moments
The greatest World Cup header ever? Oh yes. Just incredible:

One of the best volleys you’ll see:

Ten more incredible volleys:

Reviving the old tactic of trying to shoulder charge the keeper into the net. You arsey get:


What the people say
Fair to say there is some bitterness from Arsenal fans about the manner of his leaving. It would surely have been better to just say: “I’m 29, I want medals, so I’m outta here.”

That will probably fade with time to leave memories of some great goals, and that’s how it should be.

We start with a 4_4_haiku:

‘Because he finished his career quite early and because his last five seasons were outside the UK, maybe in this country he’s a little under-valued or under-rated in the pantheon of great modern strikers. His general arsiness also gets him points docked in the league table of all-time greats.’

‘He may have played for Chelsea’s direct rivals but you cannot hate a player who scores one of the greatest headers in World Cup history, then of course THAT volley against Charlton which many forget. One of the best forgotten goals of Premier League history.’

‘Two of my favorite goals of all time – volley for Utd v Villa and mad header for Holland v Spain. Genius.’

‘Sublime, wasn’t he? As good a technique as I’ve seen, with a wand of a left foot.’

‘As a United fan, I was deeply unsure of us acquiring Arsenal’s talisman, but he won me over in that sensational first season. As pure a finisher as you’ll ever find, you felt that every time he connected with the ball in the box it’d be another gorgeous goal.’

‘His volley against Villa that virtually sealed the title is probably the most satisfying goal I’ve seen. Ferguson used to encourage players to do amazing things, to show off their talents, and you can imagine him loving that from Rooney’s assist onwards.’

‘He makes me think of Barcelona. Hear me out: 1) I’d love to have seen him replace Eto’o (he’d have been perfect) and 2) That time he was playing against Barcelona and given a second yellow for kicking ball away (he was shooting) was one of the worst refereeing decisions ever.’

‘One of the most wonderfully gifted players we’ve had at MUFC. Carried a woeful side to a title in Ferguson’s final season and never pretended to be a childhood fan either. Always said it was about trophies. I had to respect that. Shame we got him too late as his body broke down.’

‘The beauty and style of his goals gave them more value and pleasure. Not the quickest. Not the strongest. But a technical marvel. Just a joy to watch.’

‘When he joined Utd I was unsure: his talent was undeniable but his proneness to injury made me wary of what he could really offer. He stole my cold, cold, heart. Thawed it out with his frankness, I like a no nonsense honest fun person and he plays his ball that way too. Like it’s fun. He was so gifted and athletic. It was quite something to watch him contort his body to score ridiculously wonderful goals, always in the right place making it count. It was incredible. It’s still incredible to watch back again. Especially that volley against Villa in 2013 when Utd clinched the title (he won it with a hat-trick! Who does that?) but that goal …That sublime floating through-ball pass from Rooney and he left legged it used his whole body really to volley it in. A class act through and through.’


What the future holds
It’s hard to believe that he’s only 37, an age when many are still playing. I don’t know if this is just my warped perception, but it feels like he belongs to a different era, even though it is barely two years since he retired. This may be due to being in the last title-winning Manchester United side and that just seems a long time ago. The fact that possibly the best striker in Europe was transferred out of Arsenal for ‘just’ £22.5million also helps date it to a previous era to that of the recent hyper-inflated prices.

Last year he became an assistant coach at Feyenoord to Dick Advocaat and he’s currently coaching the strikers. Given his relatively young age, there are at least three decades ahead of him if he wants to develop a managerial career. Does he have the right temperament for such a role? Since school days when apparently he’d be regularly thrown out of class for misbehaving, he’s hardly been a model of virtue.

Still, a temper and proclivity towards losing it has not hindered others from becoming excellent managers, even if today it is often said that players do not respond to being shouted at and prefer a nice almond milk latte instead.

What is without doubt is that for a few seasons RVP was one of Europe’s best goalscorers, one who was capable of scoring a lot of great goals. He has also written his own page in World Cup history with that incredible header against Spain. We should all wish for such immortality.  Woede door, Robin, woede door.

John Nicholson

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