If you say RVN was just a tap-in merchant we can’t be friends

Matt Stead
Ruud van Nistelrooy Man Utd

Who’s this then?

The impressively titled Rutgerus Johannes Martinus van Nistelrooy, from Oss in the south of the Netherlands, is now 44 years old. Playing as a striker, the 6′ 2″ Dutchman had a 19-year playing career across seven different clubs: Den Bosch, Heerenveen, PSV, Manchester United, Real Madrid, Hamburger and Málaga. He eventually made 592 club appearances and scored a mighty 349 goals – one every 1.69 games.

His international form was almost as impressive, picking up 70 caps and netting 35 goals in a 13-year stretch. His honours include two Eredivisie titles with PSV, two La Ligas with Real Madrid, just one title with Manchester United, and an FA Cup and League Cup medal.

He was PFA Player of the Year in 2001/02, top scorer in the Champions League three times and also top assister for one of those. On top of that he was the league’s top scorer in three different countries. Safe to say the boy knew where the goal was.

Since retiring in 2012 he’s done Dutch media work but is currently national assistant manager and PSV Eindhoven under-19 manager.

His career took a little time to really get some gas under it, joining Den Bosch in 1993 at 17, staying for four years and leaving in 1997 for a year at Heerenveen. He scored 16 in 40 for De Superfriezen and made such a positive impression that PSV came in for him and paid a then intra-Dutch transfer record fee of €6.3million for his long-legged, long-headed services.

Now 22, this was to be the start of his elevation to superstar striker status as he started absolutely battering goals in. For two seasons his form was little short of incredible – 41 in 46 games, winning the league, then 32 in 32 for a second consecutive title.

This brought him to the attention of Europe’s elite clubs. Manchester United agreed a fee but then he did his cruciate and they had to wait a year for him to recover. At that point, out came an oversized cheque for £19million. It was a sign of how desirable he was that they were prepared to wait to get their man.

At the time he was pretty much the hottest striker in Europe and hit the ground running in his first English season, scoring 36 in 49, eight of which came in consecutive games. He followed that up with an even better haul in 2002/03, bulging the onion bag 44 times in 52 games.

He was an unstoppable force at this time. In 2003/04 he scored in ten consecutive games, only beaten later by Jamie Vardy.

He spent five seasons at Old Trafford, 2004/05 being largely lost to injury. His 150 goals in 219 games was testimony to his dominance. There was a supposed falling out with Sir Alex Ferguson, and a fight with Cristiano Ronaldo which I imagine Ruud would’ve won before the Portuguese could even have time to look at himself on the TV screen.

So offski he went to Real Madrid for just €14million. An absolute steal. He promptly scored 33 in 47 and won the league. 2007/08 saw him get 20 in 33 but this was to be his last great full season as injuries started to hamper the old horse.

He left Madrid after playing 96 games and scoring 64 times. There followed a couple of seasons at Hamburg before wrapping it all up at Malaga aged 35.

Because he made his international debut just after the 1998 World Cup and Holland failed to qualify for the 2002 World Cup, his peak years fell outside of the biggest stage. In 2006 he fell out in classic Dutch style with Marco Van Basten and didn’t play a significant part. By 2007 he retired from international football but was talked back for the 2008 Euros, after which he retired again, but said he was available again in 2010.

He wasn’t picked. Aw.


Why the love?

When we talk about great goalscorers of the last 20 years, Ruud is without doubt one of the best. However his relatively low profile international career often leads to him being left off many lists of greats.

It is also true that his skills were largely but not exclusively based around being absolutely ruthless in the box. Tall, leggy and with something of the colt about him, it meant he was never the most dashing flair player but his ability to find space and to take up dangerous positions was second to none. He was aggressive and determined with a rapacious hunger for goals.

If you take five minutes to watch all his goals from 2003/04 for Manchester United he hardly ever even takes a second touch. Almost all of them are scored with a first-time strike.

It is quite amazing really. It’s as though his art was so instinctive and deadly, he just didn’t have to think about it at all. Put the ball in front of him and bam, it was a goal.

His post-goal celebrations, in their mad raving, are also very endearing. There’s no too cool for school posing, cringeworthy dances or rehearsed routines which curdle everyone’s guts. No, not for Ruud. It’s just screaming and giving it large to anyone and everyone. As it should be.

The ‘incident’ post-penalty miss with Martin Keown – where Ruud keeps his cool in tricky circumstances – now looks like something from a distant age when those games mattered so much more. I’m sure Arsenal would love their team to care quite so much about anything these days. Even fans seem more passionate. Too much contemporary football looks anaemic in comparison and the idea fanless football has much worth? Laughable.

Many who looked to declaim his art said he was just a six-yard box poacher, like there was anything wrong with that. But he was so much more. Looking at his clips now it surprises how fast and how powerful he is. Worth noting that the first half of his career was played just before the less physical era was induced by law changes, so you had to be able to hold your own and fight your battles. To score as many goals as he did between his first PSV season and his second at Real Madrid is neither accident nor fluke. You have to be able to be not just ruthless when the chance comes, but you also make your own chances.

But his whole game wasn’t just about goals. His 27 assists at United shone a light onto another part of his game which was to preoccupy defenders and in doing so create space for others to operate in. Some might argue that he had a propensity to dive but this is mere sour grapes towards someone who knew how to exploit clumsy defenders.

And maybe above all of this he was an easy striker for his club’s fans to like in that he didn’t seem aloof or in possession of otherworldly skill, the way some do. He wasn’t stylish or outlandish in any way. He just seemed really good at a handful of basics and clinically applied those skills.


What the people say

Memories of Ruud’s greatness came flooding in. We start with a 4_4_haiku:

‘A penalty box predator that you don’t get in the modern game anymore. I also admire that he still had the 90’s centre parting and curtains haircut into the 00’s.’

‘I can remember watching highlights and thinking that opposing fans were booing him when he scored. Then I realised that United fans were chanting his name! That one-note din is now as iconic to me as the footage of the goals themselves when I think about the guy. Iconic.

‘Another memory is that missed penalty incident between Ruud and Antoni Lima of Andorra, Lima celebrates the miss in front of Van Nistelrooy, moments later he equalises and runs straight over to Lima, the lesson is don’t be rude to Ruud.’

‘One of the most narrow minded strikers the Premier League has ever seen (in a good way). Just. Pure. Goals.’

‘Del Piero on RVN: “What a player. Even when he farts he seems to score!”

‘First saw him for PSV with Luc Nilis as his partner.’

‘I remember seeing the photo of him lying injured in training for PSV and thinking he must be some player if United were happy to wait for him.’

‘When he had been banging them in from 6 yards, and all the pundits were criticising him for not having a range of goals – he only goes and picks the ball up at the halfway line against Fulham, runs 30 yards and smacks it in from outside the box.’

‘I think there’s some ridiculous stat, too, which says he never scored outside the box for Man United, but in his first game for Real, it was a free-kick. Something like that, anyway.’

‘Watching videos of him now is mesmerising. He had an uncanny knack for finding space at the right time. Defenders just seemed to switch off, it was like he was invisible or something. There was a reason so many of his goals were tap ins, his movement was sensational. And his finishing was ruthless. He could smash it home, or clip one over the keeper, it didn’t matter, he’d apply the finish that the situation required and nothing more. He was a pure goal machine. His hold up play was under rated as well.’

‘One of the greatest pure strikers I can remember – seemed like not he took not scoring in a game as a personal affront. Deadly in the box, but was very Dutch in the fact he could actually play outside it too!’

‘I remember watching a game against Arsenal in ’03 at Highbury. We were debating if RVN was any good. “He only scores tap-ins” my Gunners supporting uncle said seconds before he rounds Sol Campbell, charges towards goal and dinks in the opener. I’ll never forget my uncle’s face.’

‘A pure finisher. Lived up to the strikers title of “gunman”.’

‘Think he’s massively underrated, scored all types of goals. Came back from the big injury when he was on the verge of joining Man Utd. Prototype of a striker.’

‘Never seen anyone craving goals so much. The perennial RVN/TH debate will never be decided conclusively. But as 99% of the population who’ll never make it pro, our favourite must be RVN. Simply because though we’ll never score the wonders, we can forever score the tap-ins.’

‘I just remember every game thinking he would score, the certainty of it, especially in Europe. I was gutted when he left. I don’t think there’s been an out and out striker who only cares about scoring (and being so happy about it when he did!) since then. I miss him.’

‘He was awesome, playing like he did, performing like he did in a team that was not set up to his strengths, especially when Beckham was sold, in the Xmas tree formation, he carried that team.’

‘Labelling him a poacher does a great disservice to him. His technique was superb and amazing close control. Also, Madrid fans remember him fondly as he was a great success for us winning back to back league titles.’

‘On my first ever trip to Old Trafford, we waited outside to see the players. If I recall, he was the only first teamer to come over and sign autographs. Spent ages doing it to our delight.’

‘Him and Henry going toe to toe for Golden Boot was so entertaining in that they were such different players. Loved van Nistelrooy though, especially considering the way his move to United got delayed. Proper striker.’


Three great moments</strong

Scoring from an impossible angle? Yup, he could do that.

No mere poacher here. From the half-way line and oh, the finish: sublime

Chest. Spin. Volley. Goal. Brilliant.


What now?

Watching videos of him recalling his playing days, it’s clear that he’s a very loquacious type and I imagine would be an inspirational presence. While he doesn’t seem to have any appetite to pull on the gaffer’s oversized coat, coaching youngsters to be better strikers seems like an ideal occupation for him.

And a final point. As I seem to be saying quite often in these pieces, RVN is the sort of striker that hasn’t really found a place in the modern game. He was not a target man in the conventional sense, but he had an ability to play pretty much all of the striking roles. He was a multi-faceted striker who must’ve been an absolute nightmare to defend against simply because he was so versatile and so good at all the roles.

Can you coach that into young players? Is there currently a place in the modern game for someone who plays like RVN did? Watching his clips again this week has been an absolute joy. He was so dynamic, so unstoppable. And let’s face it, RVN is a cool initialism.

John Nicholson

It might well be the biggest weekend of the season so far. The two biggest title contenders finally clash in a long-awaited meeting, but will Leicester or Wolves come out on top? Liverpool also play Manchester City or something apparently.