Manchester United's incredible 3-2 victory at Villa Park last Sunday proved three things. Firstly, that Sir Alex Ferguson can still jig with the best of them when he is pleased with a result; secondly, that the FA Cup is a lot higher up his final wish- list than many would have guessed; and thirdly, that Ruud van Nistelrooy is the best-spent £19 million in the Scot's long and distinguished career.
In fact, Sir Alex has already admitted as much himself. Rarely one for lavishing too much praise on an individual, the 60-year-old has needed no more than six months to label Van Nistelrooy "the best centre-forward in Europe" and "a player who can become a club legend". It is hard to argue with Ferguson. During the past decade of United domination, it has often been said that any half-decent striker could not fail to score at least 20 goals in a season.
Because of the quality of service from both flanks – with Ryan Giggs on the left and David Beckham on the right – chances were always likely to fall to a front-man. Andy Cole proved that you did not need to be the most naturally gifted centre-forward to break most of the club's scoring records. But Van Nistelrooy has had no such luxuries. What makes the Dutchman's achievement of having scored 22 goals in 26 appearances so special is that he has done so largely as a lone striker. You can only imagine how many goals he would have netted by now if United were still playing in their traditional 4-4-2 formation.
Jaap Stam, who was a team-mate for a few weeks earlier this season before his transfer to Lazio, has been impressed with his countryman's performances. "He's done particularly well when he's played up front on his own," Stam said. "It's hard to keep hold of the ball when you have two defenders going for every challenge with you, but he managed to do that and is an important part of the system."
Several times this season, he has saved or won games virtually single-handedly. Last Sunday apart, Van Nistelrooy was the deciding factor in the opening match of the season, against Fulham, when two quick goals early in the second half effectively killed the game; more recently, he scored late in the 1-0 victory at Middlesbrough that provided Ferguson's team with the impetus they needed to embark on their recent seven-game winning streak.
"Ruud's finishing is unbelievable," the England and United defender Gary Neville said. "Give him a slight chance and it's a goal. It's a fantastic feeling to know that when a chance falls to him, he's going to take it 99 times out of 100."
Personal records, too, have started to tumble of late. Having found the net in six League games in succession (the other match was the FA Cup tie at Villa), the Dutchman could now join Alan Shearer, Mark Stein and Thierry Henry to equal the Premiership landmark of scoring in seven consecutive matches (although he may yet still be the only one to have scored all his goals in open play).
"I never knew about the record until after the Villa game," Van Nistelrooy said, "but, to be honest, it really is much more important that the team win." Should the Dutchman breach the Southampton defence today, he will need just one more goal against Blackburn on Saturday to replicate Liam Whelan's 1956 club record of scoring in eight League matches in a row. Not bad for the awkward kid from Oss, who was so underestimated through the earlier part of his career that the former Dutch international Rene van der Kerkhof even called him "the biggest mistake in PSV's history".
Having proved his doubters wrong, you might expect someone as determined and focused as Van Nistelrooy to be withdrawn and self-absorbed. Instead, he is charming and self-effacing. Perhaps it is because his transfer to United initially fell flat in the spring of 2000, when he broke down in training just days before he was due to finalise an £18.5m move.
Or perhaps it has something to do with the fact that playing for Man U was a long-standing ambition. Even now that he has established an excellent reputation at Old Trafford, he still recalls the thrill of first shaking Sir Bobby Charlton's hand on the day he signed for the club last April. In an article for the Dutch magazine, Johan, Van Nistelrooy recalls: "I remember getting into the car with my agent, Rodger Linse and saying to him, 'Manchester United. It is no longer a dream. I just shook hands with Bobby Charlton – Sir Bobby Charlton'."
Van Nistelrooy was not always destined for goalscoring greatness. The 25-year-old was a late developer, and actually began his career as a sweeper for his first two amateur clubs, Nooit Gedacht and Margriet. Only once he had joined the professional ranks at Den Bosch did he move into midfield and then attack. The switch proved a success, though obviously not enough to impress Aston Villa and Coventry City, who must now be rueing the day they turned down the chance of signing him for £300,000 in 1997. Instead, Van Nistelrooy stayed in Holland, where he played for Heerenveen before furthering his education under the expert tutelage of Bobby Robson, now the Newcastle manager, at PSV Eindhoven.
Foppe de Haan, who coached Van Nistelrooy at Heerenveen for the 1997-98 season, felt that his new arrival was originally stuck between two positional stools. As a consequence, he urged his protégé to study how Dennis Bergkamp finds space around the penalty box. The youngster quickly absorbed the lessons and found his feet. So much so, in fact, that De Haan now believes Van Nistelrooy can be compared to the greatest Dutch striker of all time, Marco van Basten. "Like Marco," he says, "Ruud's technical skills are very good. He can shoot with both feet, he can hold the ball, he is good with his head and he scores nice goals. Even his physical strength has improved in England and he now holds off defenders better."
For Van Nistelrooy – who used to have a poster of Van Basten hanging on his bedroom wall as a teenager in Geffen and has spent hours studying videos of the former Milan striker over the years – the comparison feels abnormal. "From the minute I saw him play, I was hooked," United's man said. "I mean he really is upper, upper class as a striker – the best ever." Perhaps not for long. Frank Rijkaard, who played alongside Van Basten before coaching Van Nistelrooy with Holland, says that "you could frame almost every one of Ruud's goals". Praise indeed from a man who was no more than 10 feet away from Van Basten when he scored that unforgettable volley in the 1988 European Championship final.Reuse content