Manchester United are without a long term prolific striker. Rashford, Martial and Greenwood all have their attributes – and flaws, of course – but they are in my view, all quite similar players. For example, they all possess devastating pace and enjoy cutting inside onto their favoured foot. Yet, inexplicably, they all seem to lack any genuine aerial prowess. One could argue of the three, Greenwood is the most “natural” finisher, however of late he hasn’t found the net with the ease we saw when he first announced himself as a first team player. Perhaps if he featured more prominently in a central role, it would not be inconceivable to view Greenwood as being United’s main front man.
Though Greenwood is a little bit green (sorry) and lacks some experience, United drafted in the Uruguayan veteran, Edinson Cavani. The former Napoli and PSG talisman has displayed glimpses of his supreme ability in the number 9 role, in particular his physicality in the area, duelling with defenders and competing for crosses. This is an aspect of United’s arsenal that was weakened with the departure of Lukaku, there hasn’t been – since the inevitably brief spell of Cavani – a target man to contest for crosses, be it in the air or on the ground.
We all knew Cavani was intended to be a short term option, though the brevity of his tenure at United looks as though it could be ending sooner than Ole had hoped. It would appear that Cavani has reservations about extending his contract and would rather sign for Boca Juniors. With all that being taken into consideration, Manchester United surely must have to be in the market for a striker this summer? That question got me thinking about one of my favourite ever Manchester United strikers: Ruud Van Nistelrooy. It also sparked one of my favourite ever memories and inturn, one of my favourite stories to relay.
In my eyes, Ruud was one of the most complete forwards the club has ever seen. Of course there have been other impressive talents, but for me, Ruud just edges it. If you watched him play, you would know he was one of Europe’s elite. If you weren’t fortunate enough to witness his brilliance, his goal to game ratio is testament to his incredible ability in front of goal.
In 90 appearances for PSV Eindhoven the Dutchman managed to score 70 times. In the summer of 2000, this prompted United to make their move for the free-scoring striker. Annoyingly, this was postponed due to fitness concerns, Ruud was unable to play for over a month as a result of a knee issue. In what turned out to be agony for the player and club – but with a hint of astute foresight for United – Ruud suffered a rupture to his anterior cruciate knee ligaments. Consequently, he was unable to play for a year. Thankfully a year later a legend would be made, Ruud signed a 5 year contract.
Many players struggle with the transition from one league to another and can need time to adjust. Not Van Nistelrooy. In his debut season he took to the Premier League like a duck to water, registering 23 goals in 32 league games. Collectively he notched 36 goals, 10 of them coming in the Champions League. His exploits earned him the PFA Players’ Player of the Year award.
Ruud Van Nistelrooy went from strength to strength. In his following season across all competitions he netted 44 times. More than half of them, 25, came in the Premier League. Ruud claimed the golden boot and more importantly his goals were a significant contribution to crowning United the Champions of England. Not only was Ruud dispatching goals left and right domestically, in the Champions League he scored 12 goals in 9 consecutive games and was recognised by UEFA as the best striker in Europe.
In his third season with the club – the 2003/04 campaign – he chalked up a total of 30 goals. This season was marred by the infamous scenes of Keown goading Van Nistelrooy after he missed a penalty in the last minute that would have won United the game. Despite those unsavoury scenes, and despite not being able to defend the league, the season was not without a trophy. In the fifth round of the FA Cup Ruud scored twice against City, this was with United being down to 10 men. As well as this, he helped United come from behind to beat Fulham 2 – 1 in the quarter final with a goal. There was no goal in the semi final against Arsenal for Ruud, but he did score twice in the final against Millwall ensuring silverware for the club.
The 2004/05 season was one that was without a trophy for United. Van Nistelrooy’s season was also blighted with injuries and he missed a large portion of the season. Even with the challenges presented by injuries, Ruud scored 16 goals in 27 appearances – something some strikers today might consider an overachievement. He was also the top scorer in the Champions League with 8 goals.
Sadly, the following season would be Ruud’s last with the club. Ruud started the season in typical fashion; finding the net. However, things soon turned sour. He was benched for the League Cup final against Wigan which was the catalyst for rumours that Ruud and Sir Alex had fallen out. He was left on the bench for 6 games, adding weight to the claims that there had been a breakdown in communication between the pair. He did eventually return to the starting lineup, and of course returned to goalscoring. Though the rumours that there had been a disagreement between player and manager resurfaced when the forward was benched against Charlton in the final game of the season. Allegedly, Ruud was incensed by this and left the stadium three hours before kick off.
Five seasons. 219 appearances. 150 goals. Astonishing. Though it may not have been an amicable departure, Ruud Van Nistelrooy has cemented himself as a Manchester United legend. For around 14 million euros Real Madrid were fortunate enough to acquire the services of one of Europe’s finest finishers. Ruud made 96 appearances for the Spanish side and scored 64 times.
There is no doubt Ruud was an exceptional striker, the numbers are there for all to see as has been discussed. But as the title alludes to, he was a “dodgy driver”? As previously mentioned, not only was Ruud one of my favourite ever United players, he is also the centre of one of my favourite childhood memories and one of my most cherished possessions.
Many years ago, my Dad was en route to Old Trafford to watch United in the League Cup against Arsenal. Not entirely sure of the exact date, but I think we won 1 – 0 with David Bellion on the scoresheet. Whilst on his way to the match my Dad was involved in a minor car bump. Someone had driven into the back of him. It was none other than Ruud Van Nistelrooy! They exchanged mobile numbers for the purposes of insurance, but the damage was so insignificant it really didn’t matter – and I don’t think my Dad could have stung our star striker. Instead, my Dad texted Ruud and explained his young lad (me) was a big United fan, and Ruud sent over a signed picture and some other bits. Years later I have it framed and it’s proudly perched upon my book case.
I think we as reds have to be thankful for how lucky we were to have Ruud, he was a uniquely gifted striker. We’d be lucky to acquire one this summer with half of his ability. Here’s hoping…