Goal machine Ruud Van Nistelrooy deserves more than Jamie Vardy footnote
Manchester United striker was a deadly finisher and incredibly prolific, so why is he such a peripheral figure in Premier League history?
History has not been kind to Ruud van Nistelrooy, although he is not the only victim of a Alex Ferguson purge to suffer that fate.
The fact it has taken the feats of a striker who was scoring goals in the Conference three years ago to thrust Van Nistelrooy back into the spotlight is a fairly sad indictment of how the former Manchester United forward has been allowed to slip off the radar in the landscape of greats who have distinguished the Premier League stage.
Yet thanks to Jamie Vardy, the Leicester City forward who at the weekend equalled Van Nistelrooy’s record of scoring in 10 consecutive Premier League games, the Dutch striker is once again in the consciousness of the football world.
To suggest that Van Nistelrooy has become a forgotten man would be over-stating his position on the fringes of the debate surrounding the best this, that and the other of the Premier League era.
After all, the former PSV Eindhoven striker left Old Trafford for Real Madrid and enjoyed a successful four-year spell at the Bernabeu before continuing his goalscoring with Hamburg and Malaga.
But as English football prepares to fete Vardy for his achievement in matching Van Nistelrooy before he potentially eclipses him by making it 11 games in a row – against United, ironically – this weekend, there is no doubt that Van Nistelrooy has not been afforded the same elite status as many of his contemporaries, both at Old Trafford and within the Premier League itself.
During his five years at United, Van Nistelrooy scored 150 goals in 219 games at a rate of 0.68 goals per game.
Only Tommy Taylor, who lost his life in the Munich disaster, outstrips Van Nistelrooy at Old Trafford, with a strike-rate of 0.69 after scoring 131 times in 191 appearances.
Denis Law (0.59), Wayne Rooney (0.48) and Sir Bobby Charlton (0.33) all trail in Van Nistelrooy’s wake when it comes to goals per game in a United shirt.
In each of his first three seasons at United, Van Nistelrooy broke the 30-goal barrier in all competitions, scoring 44 in 52 games in 2002-03, yet take a stroll around Old Trafford and you will struggle to see any image or mention of him.
And throughout the Premier League, he also remains something of a peripheral figure.
Ask most supporters or observers to come up with their top five Premier League strikers and it is likely that number would be made up by Alan Shearer, Sergio Aguero, Thierry Henry, Rooney and Luis Suarez.
Didier Drogba, Robbie Fowler, Michael Owen, Andy Cole and Robin van Persie will also get a mention, but Van Nistelrooy perhaps shone brightly at the wrong time and is overlooked as a consequence.
At United, it was his misfortune to arrive in 2001, just as the 1999 Treble winning team was being broken up by Ferguson.
He also preceded the years when Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo took United to another level in Europe.
During his four years at United, he won just three major honours, but he did not even get off the bench for the last of those – the 2006 League Cup final victory against Wigan – after being dropped by Ferguson in favour of Louis Saha.
That decision blew open the simmering tensions between Ferguson and Van Nistelrooy, with the manager regarding the striker as a malevolent presence in that final year and one whose over-bearing presence was affecting the development of Ronaldo, in particular.
When Van Nistelrooy was ordered to stay away from Old Trafford for the final game of the season against Charlton, it was because of one clash too many with the Portuguese winger.
Ferguson had chosen to back the future with Ronaldo and do away with Van Nistelrooy and his acrimonious sale to Real undoubtedly damaged his standing at United and perhaps explains why he has been somewhat airbrushed from their history.
But Van Nistelrooy’s goalscoring ability was second to none. He had pace, power, two good feet and an unrivalled instinct when close to goal.
United’s surge to the title in 2002-03, when they overhauled Arsenal in the final straight, was largely due to Van Nistelrooy scoring 13 goals in the final eight games of the season, including hat-tricks against Charlton and Fulham.
Perhaps United relied too heavily on Van Nistelrooy’s goals and became too predictable and therefore less able to sustain the dominance of the Treble winners.
Arsenal had Henry and Dennis Bergkamp, and Chelsea became a force thanks to millions of Roman Abramovich, so United were overtaken by their rivals, even with Van Nistelrooy scoring so prolifically.
Van Nistelrooy was good, he was sensational a times, but he scored goals in the era of Arsenal’s Invincibles and Jose Mourinho’s back-to-back champions at Chelsea.
United had fallen from the summit, so Van Nistelrooy ultimately missed out on the acclaim reserved for the likes of Henry and Bergkamp, Drogba and Frank Lampard.
But he was too good a player only to be remembered because one of his records is about to be broken.