We’ve all got one. The one we weren’t allowed to look at; the one we had to admire in secret, from a distance. One more appropriate to deny than to acknowledge, to dismiss than to appreciate.
Guilty pleasures in football usually cross supporting lines. It’s very seldom that one can support one of the top sides and not suddenly themselves in awe, in nearly shameful veneration of a particular talent that not only plays for a rival team, but in fact produces footballing displays worthy of respect and justified envy.
This series of articles is about those players. Some of them played for your club’s worst of enemies, some of them even contributed to nights of disappointment for you and your supporter brethren. Whatever the narrative, they all share the characteristic of being so good at what they do in football, that you found yourself marvelling at them while despising their allegiance, jealous that their talent didn’t manifest in the colours of your beloved club.
As a Liverpool fan and a local lad I was brought up to basically laugh at Everton and to hate Manchester United. You can respect something you hate though and over the years United have had players I’ve respected, not many, but there has been a few. David De Gea is one of the more recent ones but it was a certain Ruud Van Nistelrooy that started it all off.
It’s not often a player can put the ball in the back of the net and it leave you speechless. No trickery beforehand, nothing extraordinary, just a striker putting the ball past the keeper. Yet Van Nistelrooy had that ability. As an 11 year old I’d watch in bewilderment as a player I was supposed to hate was making the game I loved look so simple.
This period of the Premier League saw many teams have world class strikers. Liverpool had Michael Owen, Chelsea had Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink, Arsenal had Thierry Henry and Dennis Bergkamp, Newcastle has Alan Shearer and United had Ruud Van Nistelrooy. All had their own strengths and their own styles but at the time I’d never seen a player like Van Nistelrooy, granted I was only young at the time but he seemed to just be different. Hasselbaink had the quickness and the power. Owen had this electric pace. Bergkamp just oozed class but he wasn’t prolific, he was more a scorer of great goals not a great goalscorer. That suited Arsenal though, they had Henry to make the most of all of the space Bergkamp created. It was a match made in heaven for them.
Van Nistelrooy was different though. He wasn’t the quickest and by that I mean he wasn’t electric like Owen or Henry, he wasn’t the most creative he was just a stone cold finisher. Technically perfect, a real all rounder. Left, right, head. It really didn’t matter for the United number 10 , who would probably be a perfect modern day number 9. The sort of striker that makes everything look easier than breathing, the sort that makes you resentful that he’s not your striker. Even the most cultured of strikers lash at the ball when in the area but Ruud seemed to be about 5 seconds ahead of everybody. Plenty of his goals came from him feinting and selling the dummy which took 2/3 defenders out of the game before he’d literally pass the ball into the goal.
How many of those goals are goal of the season contenders? How many would even be considered memorable? Yet plenty of them, if not all, are just elite finishing. If half of those are missed then it wouldn’t be a knock on the striker because he’d got into a good position and worked the keeper. The difference between a good striker and a world class striker are those sorts of finishes. Everybody can lash a ball home from 30 yards at some stage but to finish like that on such a regular basis, it’s unheard of. Put Ruud up against any of the Dutch masters of old and he’d hold his own.
Simple. Consistent. Devastating.
Better than 1 in 2 for PSV, United and Real Madrid.
Ask people about the best Premier Leagues strikers and Ruud Van Nistelrooy is rarely mentioned, what he did wasn’t memorable when compared to the likes of Henry, Bergkamp, Suarez, Drogba and even Cantona but it’s this simplistic (said in the nicest of ways) sort of player than teams lack these days. The consistent goalscorer. The regular match winner. Moments of extravagance overshadow a season of clinical finishes but what’s the harder skill?
Modern day football is always seen as a show by the owners of clubs. How can they put more bums on seats? They want their players to put on a show to make it an attraction, to make them more profitable. Flair players are seen as the way to go when in reality a goalscoring clinic is just as effective when drawing a crowd.