Sir Alex Ferguson was sat at home on a snowy January night in 2010 when his phone beeped with a text message.
“I don’t know whether you remember me,” it started.
“But I need to call you.”
Remember him he did. It was from Ruud van Nistelrooy.
“He left four years ago!” Sir Alex exclaimed to wife Cathy.
“Maybe he’d like to come back to United?” she replied.
Ferguson was bemused. What could he possibly want?
The legendary manger simply replied “OK”.
His phone lit up again shortly after, this time an incoming call from the Dutch marksman.
First some awkward small talk about injuries and playing time – then a sentence Ferguson had waited four years to hear.
“I want to apologise for my behaviour in my last year at United.”
For a certain generation of Manchester United fans there is nobody more loved than Ruud van Nistelrooy.
The lethal Dutchman was just about the finest goalscorer Old Trafford has ever seen, yet still to this day he doesn’t quite get the recognition as many of his peers from the same era.
He was initially supposed to move to United in the summer of 2000 but saw the proposed deal postponed after inconsistencies in his medical reports. His club PSV Eindhoven insisted Van Nistelrooy’s knee ligament damage was only minor, but United’s former club doctor Mike Stone disagreed.
In order to prove they were right PSV rushed their star striker back to training and planned to film the session as evidence of his fitness. Instead the Dutch striker collapsed under the pressure put on his knee. He’d miss almost a year recovering.
Despite the injury scare Ferguson wasn’t put off.
The legendary manager went to visit Van Nistelrooy during his rehabilitation process and insisted his dream move to Old Trafford was still on the cards as long as he retained the same mobility and pace required to adapt to the Premier League.
A year behind schedule Van Nistelrooy finally moved to United for a then British record fee of £19million.
It didn’t take long for him to make up for lost time.
In five years at the club the forward would net 150 goals in just 219 games and win each domestic major domestic honour in English football once. He also won the Sir Matt Busby Player of the Year twice and became the club’s then all-time European record goalscorer.
He deserved far more than just the four trophies he won at the club.
“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.”
United matches in the early 00s were frequented by a loud monotonic chant of ‘Ruuuuud’ whenever the Dutchman hit the back of the net. To viewers sat at home this often sounded like a distorted boo echoing from the television set, instead it was his loyal supporters backing their reliable striker after each goal he struck.
Yet 15 years on from his final appearance for United and his legacy at the club is still tricky to categorise.
To those who watched him live there are few better than Van Nistelrooy, if any.
After a superb debut season he won the PFA Players’ Player of the Year, while in his second season he won the Premier League Player of the Season and the Golden Boot as well as being voted the best striker in Europe by Uefa.
Yet for all his scoring exploits the Dutchman won just four trophies in his five years at the club. This limited trophy haul probably tarnishes his reputation when juxtaposed with others of his era, while the memory of his sour divorce from the club has been another contribution to the sour taste left in some supporters’ mouths.
As a natural born goalscorer Van Nistelrooy possessed a stubborn desire to always be the No.1 man upfront. It was this self assurance which made him so good as a player, but it was the same self assurance which tarnished his relationship with almost every strike partner he was given – and in the end it played a huge role in his exit from the club.
“Pairing up with Van Nistelrooy wasn’t going to work for Andy (Cole), so I sold him to Blackburn Rovers,” Ferguson said. “Another striker who ran up the problem of Ruud’s singularity was Forlan, a grand player. Ruud wanted to be the No.1 finisher. That was his nature.
“Diego Forlan didn’t register on his radar at all, so when you put the two of them out there together there was zero chemistry.”
It was something club captain Roy Keane could relate to himself.
While the Irishman had a lot of sympathy for close friend Forlan there was an arrogant brilliance about the way in which their star striker approached matches with full belief in his own ability to decide games.
“Ruud was the best finisher, ever, but especially in one-on-one situations, just the keeper to beat,” 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.”
But it was this attitude which was undermining the development of the team.
Another player to cross paths with the main man was an exciting summer recruit called Cristiano Ronaldo.
To those at United it was no real surprise – trouble had been brewing ever since Ronaldo had arrived to replace David Beckham – a man whose delivery into the box was key to Van Nistelrooy’s scoring record.
“Ruud was the man at United at the time; he was the man who scored all the goals,” Rio Ferdinand reflected earlier this year.
“Ronaldo had the ball wide and was doing tricks and Ruud was making the run in the box; Ronaldo didn’t cross and Ruud went crazy, screaming. ‘He should be in the circus, he shouldn’t be on the pitch,’ Ruud said, and walked in, off the training pitch, and Ronaldo got upset and angry – ‘Why is he talking to me like that?'”
Ferguson knew it was always going to be hard to keep Van Nistelrooy happy and the warning signs had already been brewing ever since first negotiating his contract extension the same summer Ronaldo had arrived.
The Dutch forward was tempted to leave and knew of interest from Real Madrid. Ferguson wasn’t happy about it, but reluctantly he and former chief executive David Gill both agreed to include a £35million release clause in his new deal should the La Liga giants really want to have him.
“The moment Ruud signed that contract he changed,” the Scot reflected. “In his last season he became a really difficult boy. I don’t think he was popular by the end. The alteration in him was dramatic.”
After an injury-hit penultimate season Van Nistelrooy looked to make up for lost time again and netted in the first four Premier League matches. Yet it was to be a turbulent final year at the club as he grew frustrated by the club’s change in style and the emergence of Wayne Rooney and Ronaldo.
Ferguson added: “Ruud had started to mouth off all the time to Carlos Queiroz about Ronaldo. There were a few stand-up confrontations, but nothing unmanageable.”
Gary Neville and David Bellion were two others to feel the wrath of his growing frustration, ‘but it was mainly Van Nistelrooy on Ronaldo’ as Ferguson reflected.
Van Nistelrooy stated his main desire to leave was because the team had stagnated and that he didn’t believe United could win the Champions League while they were so reliant on the unproven talents of Rooney and Ronaldo.
“But they’re great players,” Ferguson told him in a crunch meeting. “You should be leading these young players. Helping them.”
Van Nistelrooy didn’t agree.
Despite being the club’s top scorer that season, finishing only behind Thierry Henry in the race for the Golden Boot, Van Nistelrooy fell out of favour with Ferguson and was famously left as an unused substitute for United’s League Cup final win over Wigan.
“We were on cruise control against Wigan,” Ferguson wrote in his autobiography. “I saw an ideal opportunity to give Patrice Evra and Nemanja Vidic a taste of the game. They were my final substitutions.”
“I turned to Ruud and said: ‘I’m going to give these two lads a part of the game.’ They were going to get a touch, a smell of winning something with Manchester United.
“‘You ****,’ said Van Nistelrooy. I’ll always remember that.”
Assistant manager Carlos Queiroz turned on him and the rest of the players on the bench were angered by the act of selfishness which they had witnessed.
“That was the end of him,” Ferguson added. “I knew we would never get him back. He’d burned his boats. After that incident his behaviour became worse and worse.”
“I called him something. I called him a number of things in a blind rage,” Van Nistelrooy recollected himself two years ago. “Cocky and stubborn as I was, I couldn’t snap out of that for some time after. That’s how it all crashed.
“It was just really disrespectful, there were lots of other people there. It wasn’t all that outrageous in terms of words but it was completely out of order. Not done.
“I wasn’t proud of it, I’m still not.”
Subsequently the Dutch forward remained a substitute for United’s next six Premier League matches before returning to the starting XI for wins against West Ham and Bolton as Ferguson offered him one slim lifeline – that would be wasted too.
“Ronaldo had recently lost his father,” Ferguson wrote. “During that week, Ruud had taken a kick at Ronaldo on the training ground and said: ‘What are you going to do? Complain to your daddy?’ He meant Carlos, not Cristiano’s dad.
“The whole episode was very sad. Why Ruud changed, I don’t know. It didn’t do him any favours or bring him any credit in the sense of respect from the other players.”
With a must-win home match against Charlton on the final day of the season the Scot felt he could no longer trust his star striker for such an occasion.
“With Louis Saha’s injuries we were walking on eggshells with him. However, I didn’t feel I could select Ruud.”
When Van Nistelrooy was informed he would not be involved for the final game of the season his response was to storm out of Old Trafford three hours before kick-off. Saha and Giuseppe Rossi started in his absence as United won 4-0 to secure a second-place finish in the Premier League.
Following the incident Ferguson accused Van Nistelrooy of undermining team morale and one year after asking to leave for Real Madrid there was no choice but to finally grant his wish.
Two months later Ferguson confirmed publicly that Van Nistelrooy wanted to leave United. Two weeks after that Real Madrid announced the Dutchman had signed a three-year contract after agreeing to pay €14million for his services.
It was a world away from the release clause which had been touted – but for Ferguson accepting the offer was a no-brainer if he really wanted to rebuild his side into Champions League winners again.
“It was very harsh, both ways,” the Dutch forward told Eleven Sports in 2019. “Especially after five years of having such a strong bond. I learned so much from him, and in all modesty: he from me too.
“And yet the end was ruthless.”
In the end Van Nistelrooy probably did United a favour.
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Two years after he left the club Ferguson would win the Champions League trophy which the Dutchman had dreamed of himself – Rooney and Ronaldo the catalysts for a new fluid attacking line which focused on togetherness rather than selfish striking greed.
It was perhaps the greatest side Ferguson ever built.
What about Van Nistelrooy? He would win two La Liga’s during his four years at Real Madrid, ironically linking-up with Ronaldo for his final season at the Santiago Bernabéu.
It was after his exit from Real that he finally sent his apology text to Ferguson in what proved to be a pivotal moment in repairing their relationship.
“Mulling over Ruud’s call to me, that winter night, I knew that two or three Premier League clubs were looking at him, but couldn’t see that being a reason for him wanting to speak to me,” Ferguson reflected once more.
“There would have been no need for him to repair his relationship with Manchester United in order for him to play for another club in England.
“Perhaps it was a guilt complex. It might have been playing on his mind for ages. Ruud was doubtless a more mature person by that stage.”