As the dust settled on Old Trafford’s recent flurry of transfer activity, among the excitement and fanfare of the arrivals of Schweinsteiger, Schneiderlin and Darmian as well as the commotion of the team setting off on their pre-season tour, Robin van Persie said his goodbyes and readied himself to board a plane of his own.
After three short years as a Manchester United player, RVP has traded the glitz and glamour of the Premier League and the famous Red of United for a new challenge in Turkey, joining other recent departee Nani at Fenerbahce, who were willing to stump up the high wages for the players, in exchange for a fairly nominal fee (£4m being quoted in van Persie’s case).
The circumstances surrounding the transfers couldn’t have offered much more difference in terms of reasoning or affection. For all of Nani’s incredible talents – with the exception of a terrific 2010/11 season – the Portuguese failed to live up to his billing as it became evident that he would never truly make the grade at Old Trafford. Despite impressive showings on loan at boyhood club Sporting Lisbon last year, Nani was indeed deemed surplus to requirements by van Gaal – who can instead turn to Young, Depay, Di Maria, Mata, Januzaj and Pereira in wide positions – and subsequently moved on to the Turkish giants for a similar fee just a week previously.
For the Dutchman on the other hand, he had nothing to prove at Old Trafford, van Persie arrived for £24million as – at the time – arguably the finest centre-forward in the World following 59 goals in his previous two seasons at Arsenal. His desire was simple, to claim the Premier League title that had eluded him for so long during his eight-year stay in North London. RVP stated that the little boy inside of him “was screaming for Manchester United”, we reciprocated, screaming for the Dutchman and then some, having seen a 20th Premier League charge fall short at the final hurdle, with the crown heart-breakingly finding new temporary accommodation in the City’s blue quarters.
Only Sir Alex Ferguson himself knows whether retirement was always on the agenda following the 12/13 season, but nevertheless van Persie would aid the cause in recording a monumental and milestone league title for the club – Fergie’s 13th in total. Splashing excessive fees on a player approaching 30 was far from United’s usually policy – particularly under Sir Alex – but a fix was required to snatch the title back to Old Trafford and Fergie knew that with van Persie on board, we’d have the best possible chance of achieving that feat.
The Dutchman’s impact was instant, scoring within 10 minutes on his first start for the Reds at home to Fulham, before a superb hat-trick the following week earned the Reds a dramatic 3-2 victory at St Mary’s. A string of memorable performances and magic moments followed, as van Persie provided the driving force and momentum for a squad – allegedly on it’s last legs, to an astounding runaway title victory, eleven points clear of Manchester City in second.
Seemingly that squad was fading, with Paul Scholes reaching the end of his elusive career, Ryan Giggs approaching 40 and Nemanja Vidic, Rio Ferdinand and Patrice Evra understandably unable to have the same kind of impact given their advancing years. Despite this though, it was the arrival of van Persie – the PFA Player of the Year and without question the most important in the division – which would renew that vital belief in the United squad and see them record the third greatest Premier League winning margin with 11 points.
Winners at Anfield and the Etihad would follow van Persie’s early successes, while ruthlessly netting in both games against former cub Arsenal would demonstrate just the extent of the Dutchman’s desire to make up for his barren spell at the Emirates. Always one for the big occasion, perhaps his finest hour came at home to Aston Villa in April, where three points for United would wrap up a historic 20th domestic league title.
Prior to kick-off, van Persie had registered just two successful strikes on goal in his seven previous Premier League outings, but with time on United’s side, and a further four fixtures to wrap things up, Fergie’s men were under no real pressure to get the job done on the night. Nevertheless, the Dutchman was mercurial that Old Trafford evening, taking the burden upon himself – much like he had done throughout the course of the year – to ensure he would finish what he’d started and leave the little boy inside of him not only satisfied, but vindicated.
A hat-trick that evening for the Dutchman sealed a crown not only for United or Fergie, but a trophy for van Persie, one for which he had fought tooth and nail for all campaign, with his immediate impact on the side akin to that of Eric Cantona following his 1992 arrival. Much like Cantona was that little something extra to bring the most out of the team and drag them over the line two decades earlier, van Persie would have a similarly devastating effect in his debut term at the club. If the £24m alone didn’t represent superb value for money in today’s market, then van Persie’s second strike that evening would be worth bumping the fee up even higher, with a first-time over the shoulder volley from a 40-yard ball Wayne Rooney forever etched particularly in this writer’s memory.
But the devastating highs of the Dutchman’s first season would unfortunately be as good as things would get at United for van Persie. Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement was announced just weeks after the title was secured and speaking some time ago with MUTV, Rio Ferdinand spoke of how the Scot’s decision struck a particular chord with the striker.
It took the wind out of everyone’s sails,” Ferdinand said. “It gave us an extra push to go and win be successful in that last season.
‘Everyone was really appreciative for what he’d done for our careers. The person it hit more than anyone was Robin. He’d come the year before, tasted that success and wanted more.
‘Visually you could see it hit him harder than anyone else at the time.’
When asked about Ferguson’s retirement last year, RVP said: ‘I had to gasp for breath and I shook my head. Had he really said what I thought he’d said? The room fell deathly quiet and then everyone became emotional.
‘Sir Alex then had a long talk with the squad. I found it a very special speech and felt privileged to have witnessed it.’
Van Persie’s Manchester United career was never quite the same following Sir Alex’s departure, with clear differences outlined early on between he and incoming manager David Moyes regarding training and the whole squad failing to see similar results under Fergie’s successor.
It speaks volumes for his character and desire that he would be so heavily impacted by Sir Alex’s decision. Here was a player who left one of Manchester United’s biggest rivals, enduring distain and abuse from his once adoring fans to follow an aim of something he knew was becoming impossible at Arsenal. The lure of Sir Alex and Manchester United was too much, and with Fergie’s departure, he recognized how big an immediate impact this could upon the club’s immediate title challenge.
Following three largely injury-free campaigns with United and Arsenal, van Persie suffered under David Moyes, with the Scot’s ‘prehistoric’ coaching methods cited by Dutch coach Raymond Verheijen as one the key reasons behind a season blighted by injury, seeing the Dutchman start just 23 games from a possible 55 – one less start than Danny Welbeck who was deemed surplus to requirements the following year.
Van Persie would still go on to record an astonishing 18 goals during the 13-14 season, but his absence played a key part in seeing the Reds slump to 7th in the table – their worst ever in the Premier League (and we all know what would happen to David Moyes).
Despite the arrival of his national team coach Louis van Gaal to Old Trafford last summer, van Persie endured another tough campaign last year. Injuries again played a prevalent part in the Dutchman’s season who once again failed to find either the game time or success for which he had hoped. Fighting it out with the likes of Wayne Rooney and Radamel Falcao often for one striking position didn’t help the cause, as van Persie would start just 26 times, scoring 10 in the process.
With a huge overhaul in the squad long overdue, van Persie is one of the unfortunate names sacrificed this summer in order to secure and build the long-term future of the club. With a starting role no longer a guarantee, it was deemed that the high wages could be better spent elsewhere as the striker approaches his 33rd year. Of course we’d all happily have kept the Dutchman at the club as a squad player, but that would be a luxury and the decision is one which seems to be the better fit for both parties.
Van Persie has shown tremendous class since joining the club – ignoring advances from Manchester City in the process to be part of the Old Trafford project and be managed by the greatest manager in the game – right through to his departure where he praised the club’s handling of his move. Only one year of such success and tutelage of Sir Alex mightn’t have been what the Dutchman had expected upon arrival, but if you were to ask him if he made the right decision in joining the club, you’d be sure a resounding yes would follow.
A momentous first season at the club, culminating in a 20th league title only further disappoints the player and fans alike as to what could have been for van Persie at Old Trafford had injury and age been on his side.
The number 20 shirt lives long in the memory of United supporters, with Ole Gunnar Solskjaer making the shirt his own and offering the fans some ever-lasting memories of his own. Banners emblazed across Old Trafford read “20LEGEND” to mark the Baby-faced assassin’s distinguished Old Trafford career. Van Persie would choose the shirt, despite having the more obvious option of being the club’s new number 9, and despite a potent goal-scoring record more associated with that particular digit, chose the number 20 shirt, the significance of which being to help drive the club on to their 20th league title.
And that’s exactly what he did. He gave United the firepower, the belief and that little bit extra. The ideal leaving present to himself for Sir Alex Ferguson and the missing ingredient to his squad. Van Persie might not be remembered as an Old Trafford legend like Solskjaer, but his first season at the club was the stuff of legend, and for that, we can’t thank him enough.
Good luck Robin.