To mark the 10th anniversary of RoM, there will be several articles remembering some of the best moments for Manchester United fans over the past decade. Andrew Kirby has spoken about one of his favourite memories.
The media love-in with the fairy-story of 5000-1 outsiders Leicester City reached a potentially premature climax in early February when Jamie Vardy scored a searing goal against Liverpool which had most commentators creaming themselves. In Vardy – as long as that casino incident was never mentioned – they had their fairy-tale prince. Here was a guy who’d risen from the anonymity of non-league football and made a name for himself at the giddiest of heights.
Let’s park the fact that Leicester might well win the league this season (and most right-thinking Reds will probably be hoping they do because then it won’t be city), and even the fact that Vardy’s goal was against Liverpool. His wonder-strike left a sour taste in the mouth. I despise Jamie Vardy. Obviously I don’t like what he said in that casino, but his political incorrectness aside, I hate him because of the way he celebrates. I hate him because he beat our Ruud’s Premier League scoring record (for goals in consecutive games). And I hate him because his cheating cheated United fans out of what might have been exciting times. For it was he who conned the referee into awarding a penalty which allowed Leicester back into the game just when Van Gaal’s gaal-acticos were threatening to blitz them, back in September 2014 (Di Maria’s lovely chipped finish; Falcao smashing one against the bar). United were so good in the first half that day, we were laughing in the stands. But in the end, we collapsed; lost the game by a scarcely believable five goals to three. And Van Gaal was spooked. From that moment on he insisted on the turgid, safety-first United we’ve been forced to endure ever since (one glorious March aside).
Another thing about Vardy. That goal. In the wake of it, I heard some people compare it with some of the greatest volleys in Premier League history, including Robin van Persie’s against Aston Villa on April 22nd 2013. Which was patently ridiculous. Vardy’s goal wasn’t even a volley. And Simon bloody Mignolet was in nets for Liverpool (so surely Vardy’s should only have counted as half a goal).
Van Persie’s goal though eh? Now that was a volley. Real Roy of the Rovers stuff; the perfect, defining moment of our record twentieth league title-winning season and then, we believed, the sign that the best was yet to come. It was an inspirational goal; one utterly out of keeping with the uninspiring, dirge-like stuff we have to sit through now.
Watch it again. It is a truly remarkable goal. Given the benefit of hindsight what is truly remarkable is Rooney’s long, quarterback-style pass (when was the last time he was that accurate and didn’t simply Gerrard it out of play?) and Van Persie’s quick-time peeling-off from the Villa defenders (after Fergie’s departure, the Dutchman never looked quick; he lumbered). The ball drops down over his shoulder and then bosh. He strikes clean and true; the ball arcing in the perfect inverse-parabola… And nestling in Brad Guzan’s net. Lovely.
Sir Alex said of the goal: “I’m trying to think of a player who has scored a goal like that (…) it was the goal of the century”. The goal to end all goals – and so it has proved; it was a feast of a goal, and we’ve been in a famine, it seems, ever since.
Hindsight makes watching Van Persie’s goal back very poignant because we’ve not been anything near as good since, and because we never really saw the same from the Dutchman again in United colours. But that night The Manchester Evening News (MEN) scored Robin an incredible 20/10. The goal was the second in Van Persie’s hat-trick, but 20 was the number on everyone’s lips at Old Trafford that evening; had been all season, too. Van Persie, upon signing for the club from Arsenal, was offered his choice of squad numbers. He’d opted for the number 20. He knew the symbolism of the number: 2012-13 was – all being well – going to be the season United claimed their 20th league championship. It was also the shirt number of one of the greatest Red heroes of the Ferguson era: Ole Gunnar Solksjaer.
They broke the mould when they made Robin Van Persie. The archetypal Rolls Royce of a player, he was sleek, quick, and devastating. United broke the mould when they signed Van Persie. Sure he was the Premier League top scorer the previous season, and sure he was playing by far the best football of his career, but he was 29 years old, and famously injury-prone (there was a sense that the Dutchman plays at such a highly-tuned level, even the slightest niggle can consign him to the sidelines). And, during previous summer transfer windows, Fergie had shown a marked reluctance to take a gamble on anyone older than, say, 26. And indeed, this had become a club policy: Dimitar Berbatov was supposed to be the last over- 26 year old we’d ever sign. What’s more, Sir Alex constantly harped on that there was no “value in the market”.
But there were extenuating circumstances. At the bitter end of the 2011-12 season, Manchester City had beaten United to the title on goal difference. And so, when Van Persie announced on his own website that he’d be leaving Arsenal, Ferguson just knew he had to go in for him. The need to sign him was increased after City began to talk up their interest in the player. Eventually, Robin went Red, and City, in the form of their manager, Roberto Mancini, spent seemingly the whole of the 2012-13 season bemoaning the fact Van Persie hadn’t signed for them.
He hadn’t. Because – famously – the “little boy inside him” had told him United were the team he should choose. And how history had proved him right: RVP the MVP of the 2012-13 season.
But it’s a little known fact that, if it wasn’t for the little boy inside Robin, he might have joined the Old Trafford club much earlier. In 2001, Fergie dispatched chief scout Jim Ryan on a spying mission to Holland, only for Robin to see red and get himself sent off. Ryan’s report back to Sir Alex was glowing in its praise for RVP, but it also drew the manager’s attention to his “immaturity”.
Still, he got to Old Trafford in the end, after a detour – nine years at Arsenal, where he won just one FA Cup.
In that one glorious season of 2012-13, Robin van Persie was not only a scorer of great goals (like Mark Hughes was) he was a great goal-scorer of great goals. He scored a blockbuster against Fulham (on his Old Trafford debut), and a wonderful header against Southampton. His goals helped United come from behind in eight league games at the start of the season. And his run of 12 goals in 14 matches between November and February allowed United to make great strides in the title race and effectively leave City for dust by mid-February. Most importantly though, he had a very good record against our Premier League rivals. He scored an injury time free-kick winner at the Etihad to beat Manchester City 3-2 (after City had come back from 2-0 down). He scored at Stamford Bridge against Chelsea. He scored against Arsenal home and away. He scored against Liverpool home and away.
Increasingly, it seemed that Robin Van Persie had a new middle name: he’d become Robin ‘The Difference’ Van Persie. As far back as Boxing Day 2012, Ferguson was in full agreement. In his programme notes for the game against Newcastle, Sir Alex wrote that he had “no hesitation saying he (RVP) has made a vital difference…” Fans knew it too. Van Persie’s name was now the one sung above all the others. (“Oh Robin Van Persie” to the tune of The White Stripes’ ‘Seven Nation Army’.)
But the one everyone remembered was the volley in the 14th minute of that coronation game against Aston Villa at Old Trafford. For that was the goal which symbolised how we’d wrestled the Premier League crown back from the “noisy neighbours” across the city. It was the one which stopped us from having to watch that Sergio Aguero goal on every Sky Sports broadcast and at the end of the Match of the Day trail on a weekly basis. It was the one which allowed us to believe we were – undoubtedly – the very best again.
But we haven’t been the same since. The game which featured Van Persie’s strike was the first after Ferguson had announced his retirement. Then we got the ineptitude of the David Moyes era. Then the stale mundanity of Van Gaal’s reign. We don’t sparkle any more, and the steep slope of our decline was matched by that of Van Persie himself. He more than any other player seemed affected by Fergie’s departure. He sulked; cried off through injury for most of David Moyes’ tenure. It seemed he’d find his way back into form when Van Gaal took over – especially after the promise of their heroics in the World Cup – but Van Gaal stuck all his eggs in the Rooney basket instead and eventually – like pretty much every other striker we had on our books – Robin was off; to Turkey and Fenerbache.
We lost a great-goalscorer of great goals. Now we hardly ever even score goals. I’d like to be able to end this piece on a positive; to be able to point to the promise of better things on the horizon, but at the moment I just don’t seem to see them coming. For over 20 years we – as United fans – saw football which was out of this world. Fans of practically every other team in the world never get to see a single season as good as the ones we so regularly saw. Most will never see anything like Van Persie’s goal even if they watch football every day for the rest of their lives. United have given us so many great moments of joy that we won’t go hungry. But still, it’s very difficult to see the team so joyless at the moment.
Over the past ten years there have been so many fond memories. Van Persie’s goal is just one of them. And I’ve enjoyed reading the slant the Republik of Mancunia has put on these things. I’ve also enjoyed the ROM perspective on the current decline; proof positive that this is not a fair-weather site. It provides fair commentary on the team, often when those same commentators who are creaming themselves about the latest Vardy Party or the latest United reverse are getting all giddy and losing their heads. Congratulations on staying classy. Let’s hope the team can take a leaf out of your book.
Made in Manchester is available for just £5. It includes 30 articles from the country's best football writers about graduates from the Manchester United academy. Everyone who buys a copy enters a competition to win the new home shirt. All profit goes to Trafford Macmillan so please support this fantastic cause.