Debuts Part 20: Ruud van Nistelrooy

Ruud van Nistelrooy’s Manchester United debut was halted due to a serious injury, but he soon made his mark at Old Trafford. SAYANTAN DASGUPTA tells the story

There are a few moments in life which leave an inedible mark. These kinds of things generally happen when you are young and the world still excites, surprises and astounds you. Later on, when life takes over, these memories remind you of the good times.

August 19, 2001, was one such day. Back then Pep Guardiola and Jose Mourinho weren’t the biggest managerial rivalries. Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo weren’t household names and they were yet to make their professional debut.

Arsenal were competing for the major gongs and Manchester United were their greatest rival. Around the same time, a 25-year-old Dutch forward was tearing apart the Eredivisie. In the 2000 season, he scored 29 goals and had led PSV to their second consecutive league title. The year before, he provided a return of 31 goals before being awarded the Dutch Player of the Year.

A young Darren Ferguson, who was trying out at the Dutch side Heerenveen at the time, spotted him during a training session. The young Ferguson urged his father saying, “You’ve got to sign Van Nistelrooy right away, he’s fantastic. We’ve been watching him.” The following day, United had sent scouts to PSV and, soon enough, signed Ruud Van Nistelrooy on a five-year deal.

His transfer was delayed by a knee injury but United kept at it and he finally made his Premier League debut for United on the opening day of the 2001/02 season. Manchester United were gunning for an astonishing fourth league title in a row.

After just four minutes, Fulham’s Louis Saha picked up a long ball and beat Gary Neville as he controlled the ball with his outstretched right leg, before looping it over a Fabian Barthez to give the visitors an unexpected lead. It took the home team 31 minutes to respond, when a trademark David Beckham free-kick drew the sides level.

Van Nistelrooy had a chance in the first-half but could not make the best of it. Three minutes into the second half, Paul Scholes gave away the ball in the midfield and Steed Malbranque played a through-ball to Saha. The Frenchman stunned Old Trafford once more as he beat two defenders before applying a deft finish, beating Barthez at the near post. Within six minutes the game’s pendulum would swing back in Manchester United’s favour.

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Andy Cole played an overhead pass with his back to the Fulham goal, as Nistelrooy ran into the penalty box to collect it. Future Red Devil Edwin van der Saar, then in the Fulham goal, charged out to challenge van Nistelrooy and limit his angle but the Dutch forward looped it over his head to collect his first of many goals in a United shirt.

Two minutes later, Beckham curled in a cross at the back post, but Juan Sebastian Verón failed to collect it. The ball bounced off Fulham defenders before Nistelrooy sneaked in to power it into the back of the net.

Just like that, United were 3-2 ahead and that’s how the game stayed till the final whistle. That year, Sir Alex Ferguson’s team didn’t win the league; Arsenal did. But van Nistelrooy powered United to one of the highest goal tallies of recent times. He scored 23 goals in the league, just behind Thierry Henry, and 36 in all competitions.

Next season, that tally would rise to 25 goals in the league and 44 goals in all competitions. He won the Golden Boot and United regained the league championship.

He would continue to dazzle for a few more years, but unfortunately, that would be his only Premier League title. Soon enough, Cristiano Ronaldo was picked from obscurity and rumours of a rift between the two started doing the rounds. The Flying Dutchman left for Madrid in 2006.

But those years in between were nothing short of remarkable for a fan. His gallivanting runs into the box were mesmerising while those sneaky finishes got you jumping up from the couch.

Thankfully, I still had a lot of memories to cherish as he kept belting out similar performances for many more matches. In 150 appearances in the red shirt, he scored 95 goals and won millions of hearts. But it all started with the debut.

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