The Cult: Ruud van Nistelrooy
While he was one of the most prolific strikers of his era, it’s telling that Van Nistelrooy is better remembered for his controversies than his goals. He was a brilliant and mercurial figure, and so we induct him into The Cult.
Illustration by Dan Evans
This week's inductee into The Cult is a man who, despite his brilliance, is better remembered for his controversies than his goals. You can read previous entries here.
Cult Grade: The Troublemaker
In the modern incarnation of the Premier League, there is nobody like Ruud van Nistelrooy. As a prolific, fragile, supercilious Dutchman who had an uncanny ability to fire Manchester United to silverware, he was the logical precursor to Robin van Persie, and there the lineage of gangly Dutch super-strikers died and was replaced, tragically, by Memphis Depay. There are few forwards in the Premier League currently who could reprise the role which Van Nistelrooy played, with the whippy off-the-shoulder number nine seemingly out of fashion these days. Similarly, there are few players with the same mercurial charisma and the same propensity for causing trouble both on and off the pitch.
Strangely, when people reminisce about Van Nistelrooy, they rarely bring up the 150 goals he scored for United. It's not often people talk about the spellbinding, breathtaking, match-winning performances, such as his three-goal haul against Southampton in the 2001/02 season, his trio of hat-tricks against Newcastle, Fulham and Charlton the following campaign, or his demolition of Leicester the year afterwards. His record of scoring in 10 consecutive league games was practically forgotten until Jamie Vardy bettered it in 2015, when it was dredged back up from the squelching morass that is English football's collective memory. What people tend to remember, instead of his achievements, is the Dutchman's particular penchant for controversy, and the way his career in Manchester came to a surprising and ill-tempered end.
There is probably an element of spite to the popular recollection of Van Nistelrooy's legacy. Even when he was at his peak in Manchester, pub bores with rival allegiances would make him out to be a glorified goal-hanger, keeping up the ludicrous pretence that his near-constant stream of strikes was actually a collection of convenient toe pokes and two-yard finishes at the far post. Van Nistelrooy certainly had the air of a poacher about him, but his knack of being in the right place at the right time was an invaluable talent as opposed to a symptom of loucheness, laziness or luck. These were traits that his critics attributed to him, partly because they begrudged his success and partly because, in the macho Britain of the early noughties, he had committed the unforgivable crimes of being sexy, continental and wearing his hair in bangs.
That said, as a player and a person, Van Nistelrooy did have a natural tendency to draw resentment and criticism from Old Trafford outsiders. He lived up to national expectations of a good-looking, long-haired European footballer, in that he had few qualms about thespianism and was well-versed in that most foreign of evils, the entirely un-British dive. Never was popular opinion more averse to simulation than at the turn of the millennium, by which time hordes of overseas players had already descended on English football and corrupted it with never-before-seen acts of brinkmanship, as well as their incredible talents, tactical flexibility and ability to pass the ball on the ground. That was how some people felt, anyway, and Van Nistelrooy inevitably became an object of their sanctimonious ire.
Still, there was perhaps more validity in complaints about Van Nistelrooy's brinkmanship than there was in the meaningless accusations of goal hanging. After a famous match we shall come back to later, Arsene Wenger said of the Dutchman: "He is a great player, but his attitude is to look for provocation and diving... he looks a nice boy out on the pitch, but his behaviour is not good." Though Wenger wasn't exactly in a position of neutrality, the average fan could probably relate. Combine Van Nistelrooy's success and sense of theatre with a general impression of fierce individualism, and the reality was that he simply wasn't well liked by supporters outside of Manchester, many of whom found themselves irked by the sight of him charging off to showboat flamboyantly, and often alone.
The contemporary antipathy towards Van Nistelrooy – and Manchester United more generally, of course – is one of the reasons that his achievements are consistently underestimated, or at least overshadowed in the modern age. When one considers that he won the Premier League, FA Cup and League Cup with United, as well as the Golden Boot despite competition from Thierry Henry, the fact that he is not more widely acclaimed is in some ways quite remarkable. There is a sense in which Van Nistelrooy is the neglected man of a golden age for football nostalgia; not forgotten exactly, but certainly not extolled to the heavens like some of his teammates, and certainly not as widely lauded as his goalscoring rival, the considerably more personable Henry.
Much like Henry, Van Nistelrooy went on to have great success once his time in the Premier League came to a close, continuing to score at an impressive rate and winning La Liga twice with Real Madrid. The manner in which he severed his ties with Manchester in 2006 left a bitter taste in the mouth for all involved, however, and that is perhaps the biggest reason that his qualities as a player have been somewhat eclipsed. When people think of Van Nistelrooy, it is hard not to think first of the sullen bust ups with Alex Ferguson, the losing battle with that most fearsome of characters, and the time – we think we can safely infer – that he called the most successful manager in Manchester United's history a cunt. Then there were the envious tussles with Cristiano Ronaldo, one of which apparently ended in tears when Van Nistelrooy told him to "run to his daddy" – with the Dutchman meaning United's Portuguese assistant Carlos Queiroz – only for it to transpire that Ronaldo's actual father had only very recently died.
It's stories like this which mean that, while he was undeniably a great player, Van Nistelrooy has never seemed like the most likeable man. In his final few months at United, he was said to be a hugely disruptive presence, and to have burned his bridges in comprehensive fashion. In Guillem Balague's biography of Cristiano Ronaldo, Rio Ferdinand relates an anecdote in which, having witnessed Van Nistelrooy boot Ronaldo in one training session, he did the same to the Dutchman, only for the striker to swing a punch at him. Having caused United's opponents constant problems for the previous six years, Van Nistelrooy left the club the wrong sort of troublemaker, swearing, swinging and shouting down his reputation while leaving an echo of unpleasantness ringing forever in the ears.
Entry Point: Excruciating
While he might not be put on as high a pedestal as some of his less controversial contemporaries, Manchester United fans can still appreciate Van Nistelrooy for the goalscoring genius he was. His move to United was a belated one, however, because he ruptured his anterior cruciate knee ligaments in the summer of 2000, right at the time he was meant to be moving to Manchester from PSV. Having scored a ludicrous 32 goals in 33 games for Eindhoven the previous season, Ferguson was desperate to sign him, but the transfer ended up being delayed by a year as Van Nistelrooy recovered from his injury. The setback could have scuppered his big move entirely, and left Manchester United 150 goals light over the course of the next few years.
Had Van Nistelrooy not recovered from busting his ligaments, who knows whether United would have won what they did in subsequent seasons. It's hard to think of a player who could have replaced him, so compelling were his individual talents and so distinctive his personality. Just as there is no-one who could do what Van Nistelrooy did now, there were few strikers who could emulate him back then. That only makes his understated legacy seem all the stranger, and puts into context just how much his acrimonious departure from United has obscured much of what came before.
The Moment: The Battle Of Old Trafford, 2003
It is telling that, of all the dramatic moments of Van Nistelrooy's career, the one which is brought up most often is the game which has since been dubbed 'The Battle of Old Trafford'. With the rivalry between Manchester United and Arsenal the visceral backdrop to most of his career in England, it's hardly surprising that he is remembered for a vital intervention in one of their most titanic clashes, even if that intervention is not as edifying as he might like. Van Nistelrooy put on a virtuoso performance that day in September 2003, and was capricious and infuriating in equal measure. Indeed, the opposition were so enraged by his antics that several of them ended up barging him about the pitch, and screaming maniacally into his face.
Having coaxed a petulant reaction from Patrick Vieira after a rudimentary challenge late on in the second half, Van Nistelrooy made sure his opponent was dismissed with a sweeping, exaggerated gesture in the direction of referee Steve Bennett. While the rights and wrongs of the incident will be debated in furious and illogical fashion from now until the end of time, it can at least be agreed that Van Nistelrooy saw an opportunity for mischief, and exploited it with all his usual guile. Vieira walked, Van Nistelrooy played on and, soon enough, he had won himself a penalty. Anyone who has even a passing knowledge of football is aware of what happened next, with the ensuing scenes of explosive schadenfreude broadcast several times a season to this day.
Whether or not Van Nistelrooy deserved the robust physical attention of an incensed Martin Keown, the sight of him sheepishly trudging away from a melee of Arsenal players has become iconic. It is perhaps the defining image of a rivalry which, in turn, defined an era of the Premier League. It should be noted that Van Nistelrooy got his revenge on the team which went on to become the Invincibles, ending their unbeaten run a year later and redeeming himself from the penalty spot in the process. That's not what he's remembered for, though. He's remembered for the outrage, for the controversy, for the disharmony, and most of all for turning troublemaking into an art.
"His behaviour became worse and worse... I don't think he was popular by the end."
– Alex Ferguson, writing in his autobiography about Van Nistelrooy's time at United.