Greatest Transfers – Van Nistelrooy, the Record-Breaker

Manchester United Career Details:

Signed From: PSV Eindhoven, July 2001 by Sir Alex Ferguson.
Position: Striker.
Appearances (Goals): 219 (150) between July 2001 and July 2006.
Team Honours: Premier League (2003), FA Cup (2004), League Cup (2006), Community Shield (2003)
Individual Honours: UEFA Champions’ League Top Scorer (2002, 2003, 2005), UEFA Champions’ League Top Assists (2002), Sir Matt Busby Player of the Year (2002, 2003), PFA Fans’ Player of the Year (2002), PFA Players’ Player of the Year (2002), PFA Premier League Team of the Year (2002, 2004), Premier League Player of the Season (2003), Premier League Golden Boot (2003), UEFA Club Forward of the Year (2003), UEFA Team of the Year (2003), FIFA 100.


Ruud van Nistelrooy may be the most underrated Striker the Premier League has ever seen. Of course, the idea of under and overrated is subjective and entirely situational, but with such an incredible goal scoring record it’s hard to deny that statement. Ruud’s time as a Red Devil has been largely overlooked since he left for Real Madrid in 2006. After all, he famously fell out with then-starlet Cristiano Ronaldo and angered the great Sir Alex, meaning lasting impressions of the Dutchman were most definitely tarnished. Despite his controversial exit from the club, however, Ruud van Nistelrooy belongs in the hearts of every Manchester United fan for his unwavering determination to succeed against any odds. Ruud joined the club during a transition between two eras, and he dragged the side through the Premier League gauntlet kicking and screaming under the guidance of the old guard.

Ruud’s senior career started at Den Bosch, where he was converted from a creative Central Midfielder into a deadly Centre Forward. His debut came at the tender age of 17 in a league which was dominated by Louis van Gaal’s Ajax. Ruud remained in the Eredivisie for the next eight seasons, with his break coming under Sir Bobby Robson and Eric Gerets at PSV Eindhoven after a spell at Heerenveen. In those seasons under Robson and Gerets, Ruud scored an astonishing 62 goals in 67 games, leading his side to the Eredivisie title in 2000. His performances in front of goal drew the attention of Sir Alex’s son, Darren, who was on trial at Heerenveen at the time. Darren urged his father to sign the Dutchman, and so a day after sending club scouts to watch PSV’s next league game, an £18.5million transfer fee was agreed.

Though the transfer had been settled, United were worried about Ruud’s fitness and, sure enough, a day after the transfer was postponed indefinitely, he ruptured his ACL in a training match. United allowed the Dutchman to stay at PSV for his treatment and terms were finally agreed in the summer of 2001 to sign Van Nistelrooy for £19million; a hefty price tag for a player who was relatively unproven and had only one day of scouting records. Ruud, however, saw this as an opportunity to prove himself. The price United had paid for him showed that they had real confidence in his ability to lead the line and their confidence was well placed. Van Nistelrooy was both a striker and creator bundled into one. On the pitch, he was always in the right place at exactly the right time. He famously never scored a goal for Manchester United from outside of the area, which shows just how clinical he could be with the ball at his feet.

Ruud carried his sensational Eredivisie form with him into his first season as a Red Devil. 23 goals in 32 games saw him set his first consecutive goal-scoring Premier League games record of 8, putting him one step ahead of fierce rival Thierry Henry (a record he would later beat with 10 consecutive goal scoring games). While 10 Champions’ League goals sent him on his way to become Manchester United’s all-time top European goal scorer (a record since beaten by Wayne Rooney). A year later, Van Nistelrooy showed the world that he was not just a one-season wonder in both the domestic competitions and the Champions’ League. On the last day of the 2002-03 season, he scored his 25th goal in 34 games, giving him the Golden Boot ahead of Arsenal’s Thierry Henry. This miraculous effort coincided with United’s Premier League title win, which he almost singlehandedly drove them towards. Once again, he dominated the Champions’ League with an incredible tally of 12 goals, giving UEFA no option but to name him the “Best Striker in Europe” alongside his PFA Player of the Season award.

Van Nistelrooy became both hero and villain for United fans in the infamous “Battle of Old Trafford” in 2004. Arsenal, in the midst of their “Invincibles” season, travelled to Old Trafford for a heated affair against the Red Devils. Both teams were missing key players as Wenger looked to bolster up his midfield with a more physical line-up, sacrificing his teams’ fluid attacking play. Arsenal stood firm at the back, however, and kept United at bay. The game was riddled with fouls – 31 in fact, with 18 committed by Arsenal, yet saw “only” 8 yellow cards, the majority of which came during a fracas at the end of the match. Van Nistelrooy’s “heroic” status came after a second yellow card for Arsenal midfielder Patrick Vieira; the Dutchman jumped on Vieira’s back in an aerial duel, knocking him to the ground. Vieira subsequently lashed out at Van Nistelrooy and both were given a yellow card for the incident, resulting in Vieira’s sending off. “Villain” status, however, came for Ruud in the final moments of the game. A penalty awarded for a clumsy challenge by Martin Keown gave United the chance to go ahead and end Arsenal’s unbeaten streak. Despite missing two of his previous penalties, Van Nistelrooy stepped up, and, if you know the story at all – he struck the bar. The final whistle blew and Van Nistelrooy was surrounded by Arsenal players hurling abuse and mocking the Dutchman, with Keown famously jumping next to him and pushing him in the back – justice, he felt, for an alleged stamp on Vieira prior to his second yellow card. Van Nistelrooy didn’t respond, and left the pitch dejected.


That moment seemed to mark the demise of Van Nistelrooy’s Manchester United career. Injury kept him out for the majority of the 2004-5 season, though he still managed to finish the campaign with his 30th ever Champions’ League goal, beating Dennis Law’s record of 28. During his final season at the club, Ruud scored “just” 21 goals due to a period of games on the bench. He was dropped after a training ground argument with Cristiano Ronaldo, where he called the Portuguese winger out for being too greedy with the ball. Ruud ignorantly made a comment about Ronaldo’s father, meaning Carlos Queiroz – then Assistant Manager – not knowing Ronaldo’s father had died just 8 months beforehand. Sir Alex deemed his behaviour completely unacceptable and the Dutchman was benched for 6 consecutive months. Though he played sporadically through the last months of the season, his rejecting from the League Cup Final and Season Finale squads told Van Nistelrooy everything he needed to know. Two months later, Sir Alex confirmed he was unhappy, and so Real Madrid offered respite for the Striker. A sad end to what could have been a legendary Manchester United career.

Upon leaving the club, Ruud van Nistelrooy had amassed a sensational record of 150 goals in 219 games and remains the club’s 2nd all-time European goal scorer. He managed to score a goal every 1.46 games, but because he won so little with the club and left on such poor terms, his feats remain largely overlooked. Ruud joined United at a difficult time; Ferguson had begun to dismantle his treble-winning squad and Chelsea and Arsenal were fielding arguably their best ever sides. He left too soon to be a part of the team built around Ronaldo and Rooney, and joined too late to be part of the 2000-01 Premier League winning side. He is one of United’s most prolific strikers ever, yet never won half as much as his goal scoring deserved, both domestically and in Europe. In four of his five seasons at the club, he was United’s top scorer and never finished outside of the top four goal scorers in the league, yet he managed to win just one Premier League title, one FA Cup and never progressed further than the Champions’ League Semi-Finals. His performance statistics are unheard of in the Premier League. To do it so consistently for so long is a credit to himself and United as a club, and it’s fans, owe him the recognition he deserves as truly one of the greatest strikers ever to have graced the Premier and Champions’ Leagues.