If you were to search for a “Ruud van Nistelrooy highlights reel” on YouTube, you probably wouldn’t find anything too spectacular.
The Dutchman scored a massive 349 goals during his club career but took the term “goal poacher” to the extreme degree, making a living off being in the right place at the right time, whether that be losing his marker at the far post or merely being in the six-yard box for a rebound.
His propensity to find impossible angles between goalkeeper and post far outstripped his ability to do much else on a football pitch but therein lay his beauty; give Ruud the ball in the box and he’ll do the rest one way or another.
“Just a brilliant finisher, Ruud could score from anywhere in the 18-yard area,” former teammate Paul Scholes said of van Nistelrooy in 2018.
Regardless of how the ball found the net, one thing cannot be disputed: van Nistelrooy was one of most feared and potent strikers of the modern age.
Born in the southern Dutch town of Oss, van Nistelrooy started his career Eerste Division side Den Bosch in 1993 at the age of just 17.
Initially a central midfielder, he was quickly converted to a striker after impressing there for local clubs Nooit Gedacht and RKSV Margriet. Despite a slow start with Den Bosch, the 1996/97 proved to be a breakthrough for van Nistelrooy, who netted 12 times in 31 appearances, earning a €360,000 move to the Eredivisie with SC Heerenveen.
His sole season at Heerenveen yielded 16 goals across all competitions but if his move there was a breakthrough, his next transfer was a landmark, with giants PSV Eindhoven spending €6.3m — then a record fee between two Dutch sides — on the striker in a bid to topple fierce rivals Ajax, who had just won the league with 17 points to spare, also hammering PSV 5-0 in the KNVB Cup final.
Turning the tide in the Netherlands
As a team, PSV actually went backwards in 1998/99, finishing 19 points behind eventual Eredivisie winners Feyenoord, but individually, van Nistelrooy flourished, finishing as the league’s top scorer with 31 goals and netting a hat-trick in Boeren’s 3-1 Champions League win over HJK.
In turn, van Nistelrooy earned his first call-up to the senior Netherlands national team and with 29 Eredivisie goals under his belt by mid-March the following season, the sky really did seem the limit.
However, with Manchester United knocking, Euro 2000 on the horizon and PSV marching to the league title, disaster struck as van Nistelrooy suffered his famous cruciate ligament injury, curtailing his proposed transfer and ruling him out of the tournament.
van Nistelrooy still seemed hell-bent on making the Euros that summer and risked his career by refusing to undergo exploratory surgery requested by United. The move stalled and just two days later, the striker landed heavily on his knee and was ruled out for a year.
“The reason the transfer broke down was because they wanted to open my knee up but I knew that would cost me the European Championships,” he said.
“I told them I wanted to play and I wouldn’t have the operation. I also thought the transfer could still go on but then it all ended.
“Looking back, maybe I shouldn’t have done it. I came back and I wanted to show everyone that I was fit. I wanted to show Frank Rijkaard (Holland coach) that I was fit for the Dutch team because I wanted to be very good in Euro 2000.”
Regular support from Sir Alex Ferguson and Ronaldo persuaded van Nistelrooy to take his recovery seriously, confident that he could rediscover the electric form which had made him the Eredivisie’s most feared striker over the previous two seasons.
“When the deal broke down, Sir Alex was in Spain,” he added. “I telephoned him to tell him what had happened and he was really surprised. He told me not to worry and said that whatever was wrong would be fine.
“He assured me I would still become a United player. He kept in contact every four or five weeks. He would phone me at home and stayed in touch throughout my rehabilitation.”
The (almost) impossible dream
van Nistelrooy did, indeed, return for the latter half of the 2000/01 season and although he only managed four goals in 12 appearances for PSV, he finally got his move to Old Trafford, completing a £19m transfer ahead of the 2001/02 campaign.
Fears regarding van Nistelrooy’s fitness and ability to adjust to the rigours of English football were quickly put to bed as the forward netted in a 2-1 Charity Shield loss to rivals Liverpool on his debut, before scoring twice as United beat Fulham 3-2 on the opening weekend of the Premier League season.
The rest, as they say, is history. Over the next five seasons, van Nistelrooy embarked on a goalscoring crusade with the Red Devils, netting 150 times in just 219 appearances across all competitions and setting the record for scoring in the most consecutive Premier League games (10) — a record which stood until 2015 when Jamie Vardy made it 11.
What is missing from van Nistelrooy’s time with Man Utd, however, is a trophy haul fitting of his output in front of goal and, indeed, the quality around him on the pitch. Sure, he sealed a Premier League title, FA Cup and League Cup during his spell at Old Trafford, but given Ferguson’s dominance of English football over the last two decades, this seemed a rather scant reward.
As noted by Michael Cox in The Mixer, this was around the time English football was beginning to step away from the traditional two-striker systems, opting for more rounded forwards such as Thierry Henry, who could assist as well as score.
Did van Nistelrooy’s one-dimensional approach lead to his eventual departure from United? A fallout with Ferguson obviously contributed heavily but the Scot was on the verge of switching to a 4-3-3 system at the time, which would in-turn lead to him assembling that legendary front three of Cristiano Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney and Carlos Tevez. Whether he liked it or not, his days in Manchester were numbered.
Proving the doubters wrong
At the end of July 2006, Real Madrid announced the €14m capture of van Nistelrooy on a three-year contract.
Despite being part of a dying breed of goal poachers, and signing in a league known, at the time, to be far more progressive than the Premier League, van Nistelrooy’s rate of scoring only went up at the Bernabeu — a feat which seemed almost impossible given his already incredible output.
His first two seasons with Los Blancos were a raging success, scoring 53 goals in 80 games and helping Madrid to back-to-back La Liga titles. It speaks volumes of just how big of an achievement that is when you consider Real have won just two of the 11 Spanish top flight titles since then. An Atletico Madrid one-off aside, Barcelona have had things on lockdown in La Liga.
However, injuries once again began to haunt van Nistelrooy and in his final two years in the Spanish capital, he managed just 16 appearances across all competitions. Of course, that still didn’t stop him scoring, with a further 11 goals coming during that spell.
Short stays with Hamburg and Malaga followed – as did another 22 goals — but with his body finally starting to succumb to injury, van Nistelrooy hung up his boots in May 2012.
“I have arrived at my physical limit and I can’t play at the maximum level,” he said of his decision at the time.
The goal poacher may not have much of a place in football nowadays but it’s hard to look back on them without a smile on your face. Whether it was scoring goals at an almost god-like rate, feeling the wrath of Martin Keown and his Arsenal cronies, or coming to blows with Sir Alex Ferguson himself, Ruud van Nistelrooy really did run the entire gauntlet during his illustrious career.
Regardless of the injuries or the selfishness in the box, the Dutchman’s animalistic need, willingness and success in scoring goals should see him remembered alongside the likes of Gary Lineker and Ronaldo in the pantheon of the game’s very best centre-forwards.