During his time, he was one of the best, the very best. But like everyone in football, time eventually catches up with you. And this week, former Dutch striker Ruud van Nistelrooy called time on his career. And what a career.
But it could have been very different.
Van Nistelrooy started his professional career in his homeland with Den Bosch before moving to Heerenveen and then on to PSV Eindhoven, where he made his name forming a deadly striking partnership with Belgian hitman Luc Nilis.
It was during his time at the Philips Stadion that I first saw him in action. Ahead of facing Rangers in the Champions League in 1999, PSV took on Willem II on the Saturday evening.
All eyes were on the danger men Dick Advocaat’s side might have to watch out for. Van Nistelrooy was one, already the Eredivisie Golden Boot from the previous season.
But this guy was anything but impressive. For more than an hour, while PSV were coasting, van Nistelrooy did nothing. Then he produced a McCoist-like performance (as I wrote at the time), scoring a hat-trick: one from an effort smacked into the turf which bounced over the goalie, another scrambled over the line from a few inches out, and the treble completed from the penalty spot.
Afterwards, along with a few colleagues (you got to spend a week away for Champions League games back then), I waited for van Nistelrooy in the “Mixed Zone”.
He duly arrived, was asked about the prospect of facing Rangers and former manager Dick Advocaat who had sanctioned his €6.3m move from Heerenveen. It was then, almost casually – and certainly unaware of what he was about to reveal – that he dropped into the conversation that he’d rejected a move to Rangers.
It was something no one was aware of. But Ruud explained that Advocaat had wanted him to come to Glasgow, as part of the “Oranje Revolution” – but he didn’t fancy it.
In essence, van Nistelrooy saw Scotland no differently to how he viewed the Eredivisie. In Scotland, it was about the Old Firm. In Holland, it was about PSV, Ajax and Feyenoord. The same teams dominated.
And quite simply, van Nistelrooy didn’t want to be part of the same old story year on year. So Rangers purchased Michael Mols.
Van Nistelrooy wanted a move out of Holland, targeting Germany, Spain or France. And which is why two years later, having been top scorer again in 1999–2000, winning two league titles and netting 62 goals in 67 appearances, he found himself in England, at Old Trafford, after a £19m move – although not immediately.
He ruptured cruciate knee ligaments during a training session, and missed a year. But that didn’t dissuade Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson, who gave the Dutchman the call he awaited. And the rest, as they say, was history.
Van Nistelrooy broke a record in his first season by scoring in eight consecutive league games. He accrued 23 goals in 32 games and was voted the PFA Players’ Player of the Year.
In all, he banged in 150 goals in 219 games in his five seasons in Manchester and guided them to the title in 2002–03.
Among all the great Premier League strikers – Cole, Yorke, Shearer, Henry – van Nistelrooy had his time at the very top.
By 2006, he was surplus to requirements – or at least that was how he was made to feel by Fergie – and made another dream move, this time to Real Madrid, just the €24m changing hands this time.
Real captured back-to-back Primera Division titles, with “RvN” netting 53 goals in two seasons. But by now, injuries were taking their toll. He was rendered idle in 2008–09 and fell behind Gonzalo Higuain, the bright young one Karim Benzema – and Raúl, the only man who would head the Dutchman’s tally of 54 goals from 81 appearances in the Champions League.
If that goals-per-game ration was impressive, so too was van Nistelrooy performance at international level: 35 goals in 70 international appearances for Holland, including strikes at Euro 2004, World Cup 2006 and Euro 2008.
A year at Hamburg, and then a further year at Malaga was van Nistelrooy’s final hurrah, before he decided to retire this week aged 35.
Probably not …
– Tweet Stewart Weir with thoughts and comments.