Ruud van Nistelrooy lived for scoring goals. It is not uncommon for former footballers to struggle to replicate the thrill of the professional game post-playing, the rush of adrenaline that comes with competing on the biggest occasions and in front of feverish crowds.
For Van Nistelrooy, a man whose desire to score goals bordered on truly obsessive, it will have been an almost impossible void to fill.
In the early noughties there was arguably no finer footballer at finding themselves in the right place at the right time, with Van Nistelrooy mastering the art of penalty-box poaching.
Darting runs to the near post, intelligent movement to peel away from defenders, and an utter ruthlessness when presented with the whites of a goalkeeper’s eyes were all part of Van Nistelrooy’s repertoire, with a booming chorus of ‘Ruuuuuuuuuuud’ often echoing around Old Trafford.
Van Nistelrooy began his career in the second-tier of Dutch football at Den Bosch, making his debut as a 17-year-old and initially taking time to find his feet.
The 1996/97 campaign proved his first real leap, as a 12-goal season piqued the interest of Heerenveen. As if climbing an almost season-by-season ladder up Dutch football, he moved on again the following summer, signing for PSV Eindhoven in a €6.3 million deal – a record between Eredivisie clubs.
In Eindhoven, Van Nistelrooy exploded.
41 goals in all competitions arrived during a sensational first season at PSV, as Van Nistelrooy finished as the league’s leading scorer.
The Dutch Footballer of the Year award was a fitting recognition and he retained both accolades the following season as PSV were crowned Eredivisie champions.
— UEFA Champions League (@ChampionsLeague) November 4, 2020
Van Nistelrooy’s goals, a stunning 73 in 78 appearances across two seasons, saw interest arrive and Manchester United agreed a club record £18.5m deal for the forward,
However, concerns over his medical records delayed a deal and an anterior cruciate ligament injury sustained soon after saw the transfer collapse.
Sir Alex Ferguson knew the Dutch forward was worth the wait, however, and the following summer a British transfer record deal was completed. It’s fair to say it was a judgement proven right.
Van Nistelrooy marked his first appearance with a goal in the Community Shield defeat to Liverpool, before opening his Premier League account with a brace on debut against Fulham.
He ended the season with 23 league goals for the campaign, setting a new record for a foreign footballer in their maiden season in England and enough to be named as the PFA Player of the Year.
His run included becoming the first Premier League player to score in eight consecutive fixtures, whilst he was the first United player to score more than 20 goals in a Premier League campaign.
Van Nistelrooy excelled too in Europe, finishing as the leading goalscorer and leading assist provider as Manchester United reached the Champions League semi-finals in 2001/02.
It was the start of a prolific period for the forward, as he led the Champions League’s goalscoring charts three times in four seasons to establish himself as the Red Devils’ all-time leading scorer in Europe.
The following season saw Van Nistelrooy reach his goalscoring peak at Old Trafford. Having been beaten to the title by Arsenal the previous season, the Dutchman’s goals saw the Red Devils’ regain the Premier League and earned him a first Golden Boot in England.
He scored 25 goals in the league and a staggering 44 in all competitions, a record for a Premier League player that is yet to be beaten.
Among his best was a brilliant solo run and finish against Fulham, a goal which showed there was much more to Van Nistelrooy than just anticipation and awareness in the area.
— Premier League (@premierleague) January 22, 2019
Revelling in the service provided from the flanks, the imagery of Van Nistelrooy darting to meet crosses from the likes of David Beckham and Ryan Giggs became all too routine.
Single-minded in his obsession to score goals, it was a selfish streak that allowed the forward to become one of the greatest goalscorers of his era.
“If you put my great goal-scorers together (Andy Cole, Eric Cantona, Van Nistelrooy, Rooney) Ruud was the most prolific,” Ferguson wrote in his 2013 autobiography.
“He was one of the most selfish finishers I ever saw. His personal goal tally was his guiding obsession. That single-mindedness gave him the edge of a great assassin. He had no interest in build-up play or how many yards he had run in a game. The only aspect he was ever interested in was: how many goals did Ruud van Nistelrooy score.”
Van Nistelrooy scored 13 times in the final eight matches of the Premier League season to swing the title momentum towards Manchester, an irreplaceable contribution to an Arsenal-Manchester United rivalry that consumed the landscape of the division.
He was at the centre of two iconic clashes between the titans across the following seasons, first in the ‘Battle of Old Trafford’ in which Van Nistelrooy’s stoppage-time penalty miss extended Arsenal’s unbeaten run and sparked exuberant goading from the Gunners.
His 2004/05 campaign was riddled with fitness issues, but an October clash with Arsenal provided Van Nistelrooy with redemption. His penalty set the Red Devils on their way to a 2-0 win and brought an end to the English record 49-games unbeaten of their North London rivals.
The emergence of Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo as the leads of Ferguson’s next great side brought an end to his career with the club and a falling out with the latter saw Van Nistelrooy moved on.
He departed English football having won each domestic honour and with a record of 150 goals in 215 games for Manchester United, having averaged a goal every 128 minutes in the Premier League.
— Manchester United (@ManUtd) June 13, 2020
Despite spending just five seasons in the division, only four players can better his four 20+ seasons, whilst only two – Andy Cole and Alan Shearer – reached 50 goals in less than his 68 games.
Van Nistelrooy signed for Real Madrid for a fee of just £10.5m in 2006, allowed to move on at a discounted rate having become somewhat of a disruptive influence.
His first season ended in title success as he finished as Spain’s leading scorer with 25 goals, whilst he equalled a La Liga record after scoring in seven straight fixtures.
He scored another 20 goals in all competitions the following season, but fitness issues began to slow his output and the 2006/07 campaign proved the last of Van Nistelrooy at his peak.
Short spells with Hamburg and Malaga followed before retirement, as football waved goodbye to one of the Premier League’s great centre-forwards, a man who had made the art of goalscoring appear effortlessly easy.
Such was his quality, he left little doubt even in the minds of his most demanding teammates.
“Ruud was the best finisher, ever, but especially in one-on-one situations, just the keeper to beat,” former Manchester United captain Roy Keane wrote in his second autobiography.
“When Ruud was going through, one on one, I never doubted him. Some players would be going, ‘F**ckin’ hell – hard and low? Or dink it over?’, but when Ruud was through there might as well have been no goalkeeper.”
🇳🇱 Ruud van Nistelrooy = great goalscorer (56 goals in 73 games)…
— UEFA Champions League (@ChampionsLeague) June 3, 2020
Time has since painted a picture of Van Nistelrooy as a simple goal-poacher, one who had little interest in anything that occurred outside of opposition penalty boxes.
Whilst it’s true that his best work came within the widths of the posts, ghosting unmarked to meet crosses, it is an unfair reflection on a forward whose hold-up play and technique matched up to any number nine of his era.
Thierry Henry’s excellence and the misfortune of finding himself sandwiched between two great Manchester United sides have impacted his lasting legend, but his five-season spell in the Premier League league was nothing short of phenomenal.
For those of a vintage to have seen Van Nistelrooy’s finest football, there is only fond memories of a forward who became a talisman at the Theatre of Dreams.