LONDON — In the autumn of 1998 a few English journalists were in Holland and had dinner with Sir Bobby Robson, who had recently taken over at PSV Eindhoven.

Christopher Davies

Having picked our World XI to beat the moon (as you do) and marveled at the Newcastle United manager’s wealth of football knowledge I asked Robson if he was in charge of an English club, which player above all others would he sign?**

The usual suspects sprang to mind. Zinedine Zidane, Paolo Maldini or Rivaldo perhaps but Robson’s choice was Ruud van Nistelrooy.


“Ruud van Nistelrooy.”

“How do you spell that?”

Robson obliged and the name was duly written down for future reference.

“But who is he? Where does he play?”

Robson explained that van Nistelrooy was a young Dutch striker he had recently brought to PSV and then went into a 10-minute eulogy about the player.

How could we not have heard of this van whateverhisnameis guy if he’s so good?

Robson had seen van Nistelrooy playing for Heerenveen and PSV paid what was then a Dutch record £4.2 million for the striker.

However, van Nistelrooy could so easily have joined Manchester United from Heerenveen rather than PSV as he eventually did. Darren Ferguson, Sir Alex’s son, was on loan to Herenveen and was so impressed by van Nistelrooy, he told his dad he should buy him immediately.

He who hesitates . . . and not for the first — or last — time Robson’s judgment was spot on as he nipped in and took van Nistelrooy to PSV.

Friday the English Football Writers’ Association announces its choice for Footballer of the Year and the name on this correspondent’s ballot sheet was the one scribbled down in Holland five years ago.

“He sees everything,” said van Nistelrooy of Robson. “He said I could be one of the best strikers in the world and that’s when I turned into a professional.”

Last Sunday the Professional Footballers’ Association presented Arsenal’s Thierry Henry with their Player of the Year trophy — in fairness the votes were cast a few weeks ago — but as the season builds into an exciting climax the van man has emerged as the main man.

His goal in United’s 2-0 win at Tottenham on Sunday was his 43rd of the season. It was also the 10th consecutive game in which he had scored — eight matches and 11 goals for Manchester United and two in two internationals for Holland, making it 13 goals in 10 games.

Van Nistelrooy bowed out of the Champions League last week having scored his 12th goal of the 2002-2003 campaign in UEFA’s premier club competition — a single season record. Modestly he said that records are fine as long as the team is winning, which United usually does because van Nistelrooy is in its team.

Ferguson has been criticized for spending £30 million on Rio Ferdinand and £28 million on Seba Veron. However, Ferguson is unlikely to do better business than the £19 million he invested in van Nistelrooy’s transfer from PSV during the summer of 2001, a year after the player snapped a cruciate ligament in a freak training accident with the Dutch club.

His proposed move to United was put on hold for a year. “There was never any doubt in my mind I’d be back,” he said. There was no self pity — “I never thought ‘why me?’ I asked ‘what now?’ I wanted the operation right away so I could begin my rehab.”

Which van Nistelrooy did, not just the troublesome knee but his whole body.

“I had time to create a new van Nistelrooy,” he said.

Ruud II is stronger and faster than the original version with only Ryan Giggs and Mikael Silvestre quicker than the Dutchman at Old Trafford.

If there has been a significant difference between Henry and van Nistelrooy this season it is that the United striker has done the business in the really big games when his team needed him most.

Henry scored a hat trick away to Roma but failed at home to Ajax, Valencia and when the Italians came to Highbury.

Van Nistelrooy has done it home and away against most teams, notably Real Madrid twice and the visit to Arsenal in recent weeks. When the going got tough, the new tough van Nistelrooy got going and since his hat trick against Fulham on March 22, he has not failed to scored in any match in which he has played.

The unstoppable goal machine now has Charlton and the Premiership championship in his sights — if the Reds win at Old Trafford on Saturday and Arsenal slip up against Leeds at Highbury the following day, van Nistelrooy will collect his first winners’ medal as a Manchester United player.

He is not a World Cup winner like Ronaldo who scored a hat trick at Old Trafford just over a week ago as Real Madrid lost 4-3, but won the Champions League quarterfinal 6-5 on aggregate.

The Brazilian has won numerous “best player in the world” awards, but as a matter for discussion, who would you rather have leading the attack in your team — van Nistelrooy or Ronaldo?

Van Nistelrooy has repaid with interest his transfer fee. He is such a team man that he tries to say “butty” (as in cheese or ham butty — in a Mancunian way, almost omitting the double ‘t’ and distorting the ‘u.’

When he signed with United he went around and introduced himself to the secretaries, tea ladies, groundsmen and everyone else who help to make the club tick over — “Hello, I’m Ruud.”

We’ll never know if there was a hint of a double entendre twinkle in his eye when he said it to the girls.

* * * * *

A NEWSPAPER invented a new player for Reading when it beat Preston 6-2 recently. A copy taking error meant that what should have been “Reading’s crisp passing had Preston on the back foot . . .” appeared as “Reading’s Chris Passing had Preston on the back foot.”

There are many memorable similar howlers that somehow creep through into print. A player was once sent off for “sweating” — or in reality he was a victim of the ‘r’ and ‘t’ being next to each other on the keyboard.

During the 1998 World Cup finals, when England fans were on the rampage, instead of “the supporters were greeted by a coach load of gendarmes” the copy taker misunderstood and it came out as “. . . a coach load of John Barnes.”

The former Liverpool and England winger saw the funny side of it even if the newspaper concerned did not.

Perhaps the all-time classic was during the 1980s when Ian Rush and Mark Hughes were spearheading the Wales attack and a journalist dictated (or so he thought): “There can be little doubt that the best strikers in Europe are Rush and Hughes.”

Memorably, it went into his newspaper as: “There can be little doubt that the best strikers in Europe are Russian Jews.”

Which is why journalists prefer filing copy by computer.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
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