Sam Wallace: Right place, wrong time is the story of Van Nistelrooy's unfulfilled career

Talking Football: He famously never scored a goal hit from outside the box for United, although that wrongly suggests he never scored spectacular goals
Click to follow
The Independent Football

As Ruud van Nistelrooy completes the last transfer of his career this week he will surely reflect that, as a striker who has scored so many goals in his career, he has not won as much as his talent deserved.

The right man in the right place at the wrong time – the story of Van Nistelrooy's life. At Manchester United he scored 150 goals in 219 games but his five years there fell between two epic eras at the club and all Van Nistelrooy had to show for it was one Premier League medal and one FA Cup winners' medal. Less talented players at Old Trafford have won much more than Van Nistelrooy ever did.

At Real Madrid his luck was slightly better. There he won two league titles but, for the most part, his time coincided with arguably the greatest Barcelona team ever. Just as his years at United coincided with the greatest Chelsea team of all time and an Arsenal team that was arguably the club's best ever.

To complain about winning only three league titles in England and Spain might seem ungrateful but the big players measure out their success by the big prizes and Van Nistelrooy never got close to winning the Champions League. He is the competition's second-highest goalscorer of all time and has never been further than the semi-finals.

Last night at the Bernabeu he was due to be on the pitch before the game against Malaga so the Madrid fans could give their thanks for the 64 goals he has scored in 97 games for their club. He is leaving just as another galactico era gets going, replaced by the same player, Cristiano Ronaldo, who edged him out of Old Trafford. For the second time, Van Nistelrooy is the man getting his coat just as the party kicks off.

As he departs for Hamburg, and the relative backwaters of a club fifth in the Bundesliga, Van Nistelrooy can say he played for two of Europe's greatest clubs. He just had the misfortune to be there at a time when neither were at their best.

Because he left United under a cloud, and because he played during a lean period in the club's history, Van Nistelrooy's contribution to United can be overlooked. Yet he is ninth on United's all-time goalscorers' list and has a better goals-to-games ratio than any of those above him, including the prolific Dennis Viollet.

Van Nistelrooy joined United in the summer of 2001, as much of the United team that won the 1999 Champions League and three straight Premier League titles was broken up by Sir Alex Ferguson. Van Nistelrooy would have had a league-winners' medal from the 2000-01 season had his knee not given way a year earlier when he was about to join United.

That year's delay summed up Van Nistelrooy's bad luck at United. He was too late for the glory days of the treble, too early for the three most recent titles and the Champions League victory in Moscow in 2008. An era was being wound down. Andy Cole, Nicky Butt, Roy Keane and David Beckham left. In the midst of it, Van Nistelrooy's goals dragged United to the title in 2003, despite Arsenal's dominance.

For all the garlands laid at the feet of Ronaldo – with whom Van Nistelrooy had a row that hastened his exit – his goalscoring record was nothing like that of Van Nistelrooy. Ronaldo scored 118 goals in 292 games for United, averaging one every 2.8 games compared to Van Nistelrooy's average of one every 1.46 games. Van Nistelrooy, a poacher, was not as exciting or original as Ronaldo, but for four of his five years his contribution was just as crucial.

He famously never scored a goal hit from outside the box for United, although that wrongly suggests he never scored spectacular goals. The second goal in his hat-trick against Fulham in March 2003 began in his own half and took him past four Fulham defenders before he scored from close range. His second goal against Basle in November 2002 wasn't too shabby either.

Van Nistelrooy played in a United team that was in decline, rather than the new one built around Wayne Rooney and Ronaldo that got into gear in the 2006-07 season. Van Nistelrooy joined United the same summer as Juan Sebastian Veron and two years before Ronaldo's arrival which, lest we forget, coincided with Eric Djemba-Djemba and Kleberson joining the club.

Nemanja Vidic and Patrice Evra, two crucial components of the latest great United side, did not join until 2006 shortly before the Carling Cup final in February of that year for which Van Nistelrooy was dropped. When the same happened against Charlton on the last day of the season, he walked out.

The inside story of Ferguson's falling-out with Van Nistelrooy will be just another fascinating part of the next volume of Ferguson's memoirs. In four out of his five seasons at United, Van Nistelrooy was the top goalscorer – in 2004-05, when he came second to Rooney, he was injured for three months. In those four seasons he finished fourth, first, third and second in the Premier League goalscorers' list.

When it came to replacing Van Nistelrooy, United attempted to sign Fernando Torres from Atletico Madrid, but never really pushed hard enough. Funnily enough, it is Torres who must look at the example of Van Nistelrooy and wonder if he is doomed to the same fate. That of spending your best years at a great club in a bad patch.

Predictable fury follows Fowler's idyll

Friday: Robbie Fowler on his new career in Australia with the Queensland Fury. "I only ever wear shorts and T-shirt and my problem is fiddling with the air conditioning. Where would you rather be?

"Something that really appealed to me was being in on the start of a brand new team going into the top division of a league. That is very unusual and it has been the chance to make a bit of history and learn a few things."

Saturday: Fowler puts his future in doubt by refusing to start on the bench against Brisbane Roar. Can anyone guess which way this one is heading?

A blunder of Olympic proportions

West Ham's new owners have done a good job of lowering the supporters' expectations since they took over. They have put the boot into the old regime, painting a picture of dire mismanagement and a £110m debt.

Although, for all the mistakes of Bjorgolfur Gudmundsson, at least he never considered renaming them "West Ham Olympic" – an idea raised by new vice-chairman Karren Brady on Saturday which, if pursued, will make the new regime as unpopular as the one they have spent the last week trashing.

Déjà vu for Wenger?

A great chance to win the FA Cup went begging for Arsenal yesterday. It was their elimination to Manchester United two years ago that caused the wheels to come off in their Premier League title bid.

Comments