The Van and the Man U-turn: how Ruud brought a change of heart

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At the unveiling of Ruud van Nistelrooy in the spring of 2001, Sir Alex Ferguson was asked whether a player of the Dutchman's class might persuade him to change his mind about retirement. The question was flippantly asked and gruffly squashed. But the journalist was right. If the blessing of Lady Cathy Ferguson was required before her knight returned to the managerial field, the gangly Dutch striker has been the more significant cause for the change of heart. Van Nistelrooy's goals have revived sunken spirits at Old Trafford, not least those of the manager. But it is the promise which is so enticing.

"I think Ruud will develop into something we haven't had before," said Ferguson when his £19m purchase from PSV Eindhoven finally arrived. Juxtapose that comment with another: "We've never depended on one goalscorer here," said Ferguson in the New Year of 1997. "We're always hoping that Cole or Sheringham or Solskjaer will get 30 goals a season, but we've never been that kind of side." And now they are and it would be hurtful for such a passionate footballing man as Ferguson to bequeath the newly broadened horizon to a successor.

For Ferguson, Van Nistelrooy has been the missing link, a striker with the eye of a natural goal-scorer and the vision of a skilled playmaker. The United manager searched hard through the late Nineties to find a more complete centre-forward than Andy Cole. He wooed Marcelo Salas, but the price tag of £13m was too inflated for the United board at the time. Salas went to Lazio. Soon after, Ferguson's son, Duncan, rang from Heerenveen in northern Holland beseeching him to look at a slender young No 10 recently arrived from Den Bosch. But PSV, who should have claimed the locally born Van Nistelrooy for nothing, had already paid for their scouting lapse with a cheque for £4.2m. Van Nistelrooy was gone too. United returned to winning trophies with what they had.

Yet Ferguson never fully relinquished the quest and when Van Nistelrooy began to rewrite the scoring records in the Dutch league, the United manager's interest in the Dutchman was renewed. What he found in his exhaustive research of the player's mentality and background proved strikingly familiar. Though the village of Oss, 50km north of Eindhoven, could never be mistaken for Govan, Van Nistelrooy's roots were no less secure than those of his Glaswegian manager. A close-knit community, a good family, a steady girlfriend, every sign of a decent young man committed to his work. Van Nistelrooy's qualities fitted into the template laid down for Ferguson's original babes: Scholes, Butt, Giggs, the Nevilles, even Beckham. He also brought with him the Dutchman's traditional appreciation of style.

"I could not bear to be a guy who scores only ugly goals," he said. Nor merely to score goals. He arrived at Heerenveen as a link player, wearing the prized No 10, and, though converted into a striker by coach Foppe de Haan, retains enough of Dennis Bergkamp, a player he once studied, to lift him into a rare category of all-round striker.

"I still think the best centre-forwards are those who are a mix between a number 9 and a number 10," he said. "That's what I model myself on. Centre-forwards who can really play, who have a great first touch and a good passing game." No wonder Ferguson kept a vigilant eye on Van Nistelrooy when his initial move was halted by a knee injury. Far from ending the relationship, Van Nistelrooy's convalescence brought the pair closer together. Ferguson made a point of calling on the Dutchman and his family; Van Nistelrooy thought the gesture a symbol of United's style. By the time he was fit again, United were the only club in his mind, though paying £19m for a player of dubious fitness was widely regarded as a gamble.

Emotionally, more was invested in Van Nistelrooy's arrival. Ferguson's judgement was in question, not least when United failed to adapt swiftly to a new Euro-formation, with Van Nistelrooy as a solo striker. But Ferguson has watched with admiration how intelligently the Dutchman has absorbed the United culture, both on and off the field. Ruud knows his United history, was genuinely thrilled to shake Sir Bobby Charlton by the hand and to see the pictures of Law and Best. "Graceful, beautiful," he said. "That's something that belongs to this club. Duncan Edwards died in February 1958 at the age of only 21 but they still talk about him now. That neck, those muscles. Strong or what? They say he could do anything."

Loyalty to the club, loyalty to community and team, these are the recognisable traits of United's most successful manager mirrored in his new striker. Ferguson is a footballing man to the marrow, so football will be the arbiter of his future. Van Nistelrooy has revived Ferguson's faith and roused his curiosity. Slippers and hearth side lose their attraction when set against the lure of a triumphant new era.