It was the strength to shield the ball from Sylvain Legwinski and spin away from the chasing pack. It was the forceful-yet-controlled stride into the Fulham penalty area. It was the beating of numerous opponents, and it was the ease in which he opened his body to tuck the ball past goalkeeper Maik Taylor and into the far post. It was the raw, unequivocal emotion in the aftermath, and it was the gentle nod of appreciation from Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson. It was Ruud van Nistelrooy, but not as we knew him.
The Netherlands international was carving a name for himself as one of the most prolific strikers in the Premier League at the time, but Van Nistelrooy reinvented himself with his solo effort against Jean Tigana’s Fulham in 2003. At least to United supporters, anyway.
In truth, Van Nistelrooy was billed as the complete forward when the Old Trafford side pushed through a £19 million deal with PSV. The sheer physicality of Van Nistelrooy, his explosive pace combined with exceptional ball control, constructed the frame of the finest forward outside of the European elite.
At Old Trafford, though, he was somewhat pigeonholed as the man who finished the move; his creativity and ability to beat a man shelved. Van Nistelrooy’s ruthlessness in front of goal remained – his hat-trick in the aforementioned Fulham tie marked his 32nd goal in 44 games that season – though the responsibility of creating the opportunities was passed to the likes of David Beckham, Ryan Giggs and later Cristiano Ronaldo.
Van Nistelrooy left Old Trafford with 150 goals in 219 games at a rate of 0.68 goals per game and a goal every 128 minutes in the Premier League. In his first three seasons at United, he scored 36, 44, and 30 goals respectively and was the club’s top scorer in four of his five seasons.
However, his legacy at the club has been smeared by his unpleasant Old Trafford exit and Ferguson’s efforts to highlight his own decision to back Cristiano Ronaldo over the Dutchman following a falling out between the pair. His name was briefly brought back into conversation only when Jamie Vardy surpassed his 10-game scoring streak during Leicester City’s Premier League-winning campaign in 2015-16.
All Van Nistelrooy had to show for his five-season stint at Old Trafford was a single Premier League title, an FA Cup winners' medal and a League Cup. His time in Manchester coincided with Arsenal’s invincibles and Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea coming into dominance, a theme which would continue throughout his career.
Van Nistelrooy later claimed two La Liga titles while leading the Real Madrid line, scoring 64 goals in 97 appearances in all competitions, though the capital side’s success was overshadowed by Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona. He would again be dethroned by Ronaldo, an attacker he outscored but failed to outshine, this time at the Santiago Bernabeu.
Again, Van Nistelrooy was the nearly man; a star whose shine was not recognised by those watching. And if it wasn’t a lack of recognition, it was a reoccurring knee, calf or muscle injury which thwarted the Dutchman’s progress.
His two seasons with Bundesliga outfit Hamburg and the ultimate campaign of his career, with Malaga, who he guided to Champions League qualification for the first time in their history, are a mere afterthought.
"I feel happy that I am the one taking this decision,” a 35-year-old Van Nistelrooy said upon his retirement. "I have arrived at my physical limit and I can't play at the maximum level. I am proud to have won collective and individual titles, but my greatest satisfaction was to be able to work day after day, year after year."
For the first time, Van Nistlerooy called it a day on his terms. A man who poured his soul into a career which yielded little silverware compared to what could have been achieved if timing had been on his side.
It was, and still is, a different story at international level. Netherlands fans rightly consider Van Nistelrooy as one of the greatest they’ve had the pleasure to call their own and are proud to discuss his success. Thirty five goals puts him joint-fifth in the goalscoring charts for Oranje, with only Robin van Persie (50), Klaas-Jan Huntelaar (42), Patrick Kluivert (40) & Dennis Bergkamp (37) scoring more.
His individual effort against Fulham epitomised what it is like to be to be Ruud Van Nistelrooy at club level, though. A moment of true excellence, of so much worth – it lifted United to the Premier League summit for the first time in over a year - acknowledged only by a simple nod of the head by his manager.
It is only now, as United are on the hunt for a first-rate forward and with the Netherlands national side crumbling, that Van Nistelrooy can be fully appreciated.