Breaking a Premiership record by scoring in eight consecutive league games, top scorer in the season’s Champions League and joining the elite few United forwards to ever score over 20 league goals in a season: Considering he didn’t play for almost a year with injury, Ruud had an amazing first season at Old Trafford.
But, if the first year was amazing, Ruud’s second season at Old Trafford topped even that. Goals, goals, goals – 44 in total in all competitions including three hat-tricks and 12 penalties. Hat-tricks against Newcastle, Charlton and Fulham all came at critical points in the season whilst his ruthlessness on the penalty spot was incredible.
And his goals, again, weren’t all tap-ins. There were great goals: fantastic solo efforts at FC Basel and home to West Ham, a superb goal at Highbury against Arsenal and clever goals against Juventus at old Trafford and away to Bayer Leverkusen. The best one though, was a goal of the season candidate that even Ryan Giggs would envy and showed, yet again new elements to van Nistelrooy’s explosive talents. Against Fulham, Ruud picked up possession in a seemingly innocuous position close to the halfway line. Spotting a gap, he brushed off five Fulham defenders, charged into the box. and slotted at an angle to beat the Cottagers keeper.
Although he missed out on the PFA award to Thierry Henry, Ruud’s 25 Premiership goals won him the Golden Boot and Barclaycard Player of the Year. He was also the top scorer in the Champions League with 12 goals (excluding 2 in the qualifying round). Its hard to think of a United player more deserving of his Championship winners medal and one who enjoyed the title triumph over Arsenal more.
After coming away empty-handed in his first season, Ruud’s sheer desire and thirst to score goals was unquenchable. In many ways he resembled Roy Keane in his drive and determination, he wasn’t going to tolerate another trophy-less season. Even when the Reds lost 3-1 at Real Madrid, his never say die attitude shone through that night and impressed everyone inside the Bernabeu and beyond.
In 2003-2004 Ruud continued his goal scoring form but didn’t hit the heights of the previous term. He scored a hat-trick away to Leicester in a 4-1 win, two against Man City in the FA Cup and two at Everton including the last minute winner in a dramatic 4-3 win. It was during the second half of the season that his league form worryingly went downhill for he went 8 games without a Premiership goal. It also became a concern that his once omnipotent prowess from the penalty spot was gone. The striker failed from the spot four times, the most costly miss was at home to Arsenal in injury time when he hit the bar.
FA Cup Winners
A worrying knee injury was a setback in April but he recovered to play in the FA Cup Final and score twice to clinch a 3-0 win for the Reds over Millwall. He also bagged four goals as Holland reached the semi-finals of Euro 2004. The following season Ruud who was absent after a groin operation until mid September. On return he was soon scoring once more and bagged 4 at home to Sparta Prague in a devastating display.
It would the high point of an ultimately disappointing campaign. After picking up what appeared to be a calf problem on international duty in October, he limped on for another six weeks before the problem became so bad he had to stop. An Achilles injury was the true cause and it kept Van Nistelrooy on the sidelines for almost three months. “I played with the Achilles injury for too long,” he admitted. “For six weeks maybe, I carried on, until in the end I couldn’t carry on anymore. I think that cost me three months.
When Van Nistelrooy returned in early March at home to AC Milan he was clearly not match fit and it would be 8 games before he scored again. In fact the stop/start season had left him looking a shadow of the player of old. United fans will be hoping he can stay injury free and get back to being one of the greatest strikers in world football for season 2005-2006. And in spite of all his problems Ruud still finished as the top scorer in the Champions league with 6 goals. Sir Alex especially knows the cost of the Dutch stars unavailability, 2003-04 was the lowest goal scoring total of any Manchester United team since 1991.