“I don’t think he was popular by the end. The alteration in him was dramatic.”
Like David Beckham and Roy Keane, Ruud van Nistelrooy is a Manchester United legend who saw his time at the club end in acrimony.
However, unlike his former teammates, Van Nistelrooy would later apologise to Alex Ferguson for how his Man United career came to an end.
Van Nistelrooy at Man United
The Dutch centre-forward was Ferguson’s talisman between 2001 and 2006. He was one of the most prolific strikers to ever play for Man United and helped them win the Premier League, the FA Cup and the League Cup.
In 219 games for the Red Devils, Van Nistelrooy scored 150 goals. Only Wayne Rooney has scored more goals for Man United in European football.
However, his time at Old Trafford ended in bitter fashion and the problems began a year or so before he left the club.
Van Nistelrooy frequently complained to Ferguson and assistant coach Carlos Queiroz about Cristiano Ronaldo.
The Portuguese star was still developing his game at the time. He would often delay passes in order to beat his direct opponent a couple of times.
Meanwhile, Van Nistelrooy had been accustomed to David Beckham delivering pinpoint crosses into the penalty area for him to finish.
That changed when Ronaldo took Beckham’s place on the right-wing. Van Nistelrooy was impatient and regularly lost his cool with Ronaldo. Gary Neville and David Bellion were also targeted by the former PSV Eindhoven centre-forward.
“Carlos Queiroz turned on him. It became fractious in the dug-out.”
The incident which effectively ended Van Nistelrooy’s Man United career occurred in February 2006. The Dutchman launched a verbal assault against Ferguson during the League Cup final in Cardiff, a match the club won 4-0 against Wigan Athletic.
Ferguson brought on Patrice Evra and Nemanja Vidic against Wigan and left Van Nistelrooy on the bench. The pair had recently joined the club and the manager wanted to give them a taste of success in the final. Van Nistelrooy was furious.
“We were on cruise control against Wigan and I saw an ideal opportunity to give Evra and Vidic a taste of the game They were my final substitutions,” the former Man United manager said.
“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. Could not believe it. Carlos Queiroz turned on him. It became fractious in the dug-out. The other players were telling him: ‘Behave yourself.'”
“In a blind rage, I shouted at him.”
Several years after the incident, Van Nistelrooy confirmed that he launched a tirade against Ferguson.
In an interview with Eleven Sports, he was asked if he called his former manager a “Scottish pig.”
“I called him something. I called him a number of things in a blind rage,” Van Nistelrooy said.
“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, still am not.”
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"You called him a Scottish pig." Former Manchester United man, Ruud Van Nistelrooy speaks about his exchange with Sir Alex Ferguson 👀 #MUFC
— ELEVEN SPORTS UK (@ElevenSports_UK) January 9, 2019
Van Nistelrooy leaves for Real & Man United rebuild
Ferguson claimed that Van Nistelrooy’s behaviour became “worse and worse” after the incident in Cardiff. He had a training ground row with Ronaldo and asked if he was going to “complain to your daddy?”
Van Nistelrooy was referring to Man United coach Queiroz, who was Portuguese and close to Ronaldo. However, Ronaldo’s father had recently passed away and he took great offence to his teammate’s poor choice of words.
It was becoming clear that Van Nistelrooy could not remain at Old Trafford for much longer.
“I don’t think he was popular by the end.”
Van Nistelrooy had earlier insisted that there was a clause in his contract which allowed him to join Real Madrid if they bid £35m. According to Ferguson, he first asked for a move to Madrid in 2005 and got his wish in the summer of 2006. The Spanish giants paid €14m for the striker.
“I don’t think he was popular by the end. The alteration in him was dramatic,” Ferguson wrote in his second autobiography.
“Van Nistelrooy thought the team had stagnated. He didn’t believe we could win the Champions League.
“His view was that we couldn’t win the European Cup with young players – the likes of Rooney and Ronaldo.”
Ironically, Van Nistelrooy’s departure led to Ferguson building his final great team around Ronaldo and Rooney. In 2008, two years after Ruud left, Man United won the Champions League with a brilliant, fluent attack.
Van Nistelrooy won La Liga twice with Madrid but never got his hands on the European Cup. Following Ronaldo’s arrival at the Bernabeu in 2009, the Dutch striker joined German side Hamburg.
He retired in 2012 after a spell with Malaga and is currently PSV Under-19 coach and assistant manager of the Dutch national team.
“I want to apologise for my behaviour in my last year at United.”
According to Ferguson, Van Nistelrooy apologised in 2010 for how his time at the club ended.
“My phone beeped with a text message. ‘I don’t know whether you remember me,’ it started, ‘but I need to call you.’ Ruud van Nistelrooy,” Ferguson said.
“I had no idea what it might be. But I texted him back: OK. So he rang. First, the small talk. Had some injuries, fit now, not getting a game, blah blah. Then he came out with it. ‘I want to apologise for my behaviour in my last year at United.”
“Ruud offered no explanation. Perhaps I should have taken that chance to say, ‘Why did it go that way?’
“Ruud was doubtless a more mature person by that stage.”
Ferguson said that it was possible that his former player had a ‘guilt complex’ for how it ended. But he attributed the apology to Van Nistelrooy’s increased maturity at that stage of his life.
“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.
“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.”
Originally published on August 6, 2020.