It’s a cold, grey February afternoon at Old Trafford, the kind of day when anyone with any sense would be at home with the curtains drawn. Long after his team-mates have departed, the only United star left on the scene is Ruud van Nistelrooy, waiting patiently to face his FourFourTwo grilling. Attempting to make a good early impression, FFT congratulates him on his recent promotion to vice-captain of the team, a move brought about by Roy Keane’s abrupt departure.
“Thank you,” he says, before breaking out into almost child-like glee. “Gary Neville is the real leader of United, but to skipper the side in his absence was absolutely fantastic. Each time I was given the armband before the match, it came in a velvet bag, and I had to remove it myself. The only disappointment was that I didn’t get to keep it, because our kit man is very superstitious and always insists on taking it back. But that’s OK, I don’t want to jinx him, and I hope I’ll get to keep it once the season is over.”
By then, of course, he may yet be able to frame it alongside a cup-winner’s medal or two, but for another season the club will miss out on the Champions League and, barring a minor miracle, the Premiership title. Chelsea have raised the bar significantly since Jose Mourinho and Roman Abramovich arrived.
Can United seriously compete and bridge the gap with the current squad?
Yes, I believe we can, but how soon we do that I cannot say for sure. The backbone of the team is now in place and much stronger than it’s been for a long time, particularly with the arrival of Edwin [van der Sar]. He’s a top-class goalkeeper with so much experience, and that’s made a huge difference. He alone will accumulate us more points. The only problem we have is that we have a small squad, so unlike Chelsea we don’t have cover for every position. But if everyone is fit, we are as good as Chelsea. We showed that when we ended their unbeaten run last November. So much seems to depend on Wayne Rooney to be the creative force at United.
Having played alongside him for a season and a half, how good is he?
What can I say? He’s an excellent player, he proves that week in, week out. The thing about Wayne is that it’s so easy to forget that he’s only just turned 20. He’s still only a young man, yet he plays and has the strength of a seasoned professional. I watch so many games from Holland, Germany and Spain but I haven’t seen a young player who is as good or as mature as he is. He’s an exceptional talent and there’s better to come as he matures.
Do you ever lie awake at night wishing Roman Abramovich had bought Manchester United instead of Chelsea?
No, definitely not. Abramovich has done OK at Chelsea but believe me, Manchester United will come good again because we are always striving to improve. I respect what Chelsea have achieved, but football isn’t just about throwing money around, it’s about having a long-term plan. If there’s no vision then the finished product is worthless. Look at Fulham, for example. They thought that with a multi-millionaire owner they’d be at the top of the Premiership and challenging in Europe, but that hasn’t happened. At least with Chelsea there’s a definite plan, and that’s down to Jose Mourinho, but money doesn’t always bring success.
Are you a fan of Mourinho the man, as well as Mourinho the manager?
Yes, because he presents himself in an open way, irrespective of what others may think, and I have respect for that. He has proven himself to be a good manager by winning the UEFA Cup and Champions League with Porto, so he has a right to be confident. Sometimes it comes across as arrogance, but he&r�squo;s colourful and interesting and when you meet him you realise that he’s a good guy.
Have you met Malcolm Glazer yet?
No, not him personally, but his three sons are always at the matches and I’ve met them several times. I’ve only shaken hands with them, nothing more. We’ve never spoken, but that’s not important or unusual. If Manchester United was owned by English businessmen, I wouldn’t necessarily talk to them either. My job is to play football, not get involved in stocks and shares.
When Roy Keane criticised his United team-mates after the Middlesbrough game last October, you were the only one who publicly supported him...
Yes, because what Roy Keane said was completely true. He knew that things u weren’t right within the club, that the team weren’t performing as we should, so he spoke out. It only escalated into a public row because the interview was pulled from MUTV. Roy had a big heart for this club. He knows Manchester United Football Club inside out and I respect him because of the way he is as a person and the way he performed as captain here. I certainly have more respect for a person like Roy than for those people who hide behind rumours and the backs of other people. Believe me, Roy Keane is the best professional I have ever met.
Did he choose to leave Old Trafford or was he forced out?
I don’t know and believe me, nobody except Roy and the people directly involved really knows. All the players get their information via the media. The manager and Roy appeared in a press conference and I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.
Did you not find it slightly unusual, that the team captain communicated with his colleagues, his fellow players, via the media?
Well that’s not exactly true. Roy had said what he felt numerous times to the players and for us his criticism wasn’t anything new, it didn’t just come from out of nowhere. And as I said, he was captain of the team and completely right to speak up. What I can say about the situation is that Alex Ferguson and Roy Keane had worked fantastically together for 12 years and the basis of that relationship was complete respect. In the end, the decision they reached was what they both thought was best for the club, which is all that matters.
Every now and then we hear rumours about you moving to Real Madrid. Is there ever any truth in them?
No, and I never understand how these rumours appear. Every time I hear them I phone my agent, Rodger Linse, because he’s normally quoted. He always says that the information didn’t come from him, so I can’t understand why they keep saying that I want to leave. It’s absolute nonsense. Manchester United is my club and I want to play out my contract here and then see where things stand. You have to learn to live with such rumours, but they don’t affect me and I certainly don’t lose any sleep over them.
What gives you most satisfaction, beating Chelsea or beating Arsenal?
[Smiles] Both. It pleases me to win every game, whoever it’s against, it’s just that the pressure is increased against those two. We’ve had more incidents in our games against Arsenal, mainly because the Arsenal manager has been talking in the press, which increases the tension and creates bad feelings. Luckily, that has not been so much of a problem recently. Patrick Vieira describing you a “cheat and a coward” and “a son of a bitch” in his autobiography didn’t help.
How did you feel when you read that?
I don’t have a problem with that. The incidents during the United-Arsenal matches have clearly affected him as he’s obviously still very frustrated. But he’s entitled to say what he thinks of me. If he thinks I’m a prick, �that doesn’t necessarily mean that I think the same of him. I’m not like that and never will be but it was all about the promotion for his book. The newspapers read that and it was the juiciest bit, so they reported it. People have asked me if I’ll sue over it, which is stupid. Why should I waste my energy on something so trivial? I don’t understand why Patrick Vieira’s still so stressed out about things that have gone, particularly as he’s not even playing in England anymore. The whole issue is immaterial and just isn’t worth talking about.
Do you have an autobiography in you, and will you use it to respond?
Every player in England has a book in them, but mine will have to wait until I’ve finished playing. Maybe when I retire I can work on a quality document about my football career. The life story of the footballer Ruud van Nistelrooy will not be a book filled with scandals. I haven’t the need or desire to seek revenge or hang the dirty washing out to dry. Look at all the books written by footballers... they’ve written the most awful things, slating and slagging their colleagues or managers – I’d be ashamed to be associated with that sort of publication. I’d want a really nice book filled with good quality images. Something to treasure, something to keep and something to be proud of.
Why do multi-millionaire footballers still in their twenties feel the need to publish books? Surely it can’t just be about the money?
No, the money doesn’t play a role at all. It’s normally about rancour, a grudge or vanity. To me, there’s never been a decent book written about a footballer and I’d like to change that, but not while I’m playing. Only after I’ve finished as a player will I have the complete picture, the whole story to tell.
Have you considered what else you’ll do once you retire?
I’ve still got time on my side at 29, but sometimes I do think about what I’ll do when this all ends. I’m not the type that can sit and do nothing all day, for me that’s a very shallow existence, but it’s hard to predict the future.
Would you like to stay in the game?
At this stage I’d say no. I certainly don’t see myself as a trainer, but then Marco van Basten [now the Holland coach] said that many times when he was a player and look at him now. So never say never. Anything is possible, but where I’ll end up I honestly don’t know. After the pressures and stress of being a Premiership footballer, it would be great to just disappear for a few years and be u anonymous again. I would love to just hide for a while then reappear when I get the itch. But that’s for further down the line. For now, all I want to focus on is doing my best for Manchester United and the forthcoming World Cup; the rest can wait.
Are you excited by the World Cup as we, the fans, are?
[Smiles] I’m thinking of it day and night, I can’t wait for it to begin. It will be the most important month in my life because I’m at the perfect age now and I believe we can go there and win it. Really? You truly believe that? Yes. We have a really good group of players and if everyone is fit and in form then for the first time in our history we can be world champions.
But isn’t that always the case with Holland, that you so often promise so much but always ultimately fall short?
Perhaps, but it’s hard to make things click when you have different characters in the team. This time I think everything does click, the squad has a good feeling, we have trust in each other and we all know our roles inside and out. We have been building slowly since Marco van Basten arrived and we believe we can make history.
How impressed have you been with Van Basten as a coach?
He’s impressed me enormously. The atmosphere he creates within and around the squad is very professional. When you meet he shakes your hand, but then it’s straight down to work. He tells us what’s in the training programme and what he expects from us, and that’s the end of the discussion. He knows what he wants, he’s incredibly thorough in his preparation, and he works us hard from the first minute to the last. There’s no time to relax when you’re in the national squad, which is good. I find the way he works very, very impressive.
Do England have a realistic chance of winning in Germany?
[Smiles] Of course they do, because England have some very good players, but I don’t often see them perform well in international matches when it matters. They showed what they are capable of against Argentina last year, I couldn’t believe how well they played in that game, but that was only a friendly. But then again, if Wayne Rooney, Frank Lampard, David Beckham and Michael Owen perform then it can happen. I wouldn’t be surprised if England went far, put it that way.
Who do you fear more than England?
I don’t think you can look past Brazil. With the players they have, their coach could easily pick three top teams who would all do well. You could say that’s a problem for him, finding the right blend, but just look at who he has to choose from – Adriano, Ronaldo, Ronaldinho, Robinho, Baptista, Kaka – it’s enough to make you go crazy. They have about 50 fantastic midfielders to select from, plus they have the greatest player in the world. Ronaldinho? Absolutely. I just can’t get enough of watching him play – he’s a delight for the eye. His technique is incredible, his touch, his vision, he scores and he orchestrates everything. He’s just the complete player. I know how difficult it is for a forward playing at this level, but for him it’s so easy. He does it every single game and it’s just unbelievable to watch. If I fear anyone in Germany, it’s Brazil and it’s Ronaldinho.