When Eric Cantona arrived at Manchester United in 1992, some people argued that the impact he made in his first season will never be matched. They were not wrong. Cantona’s arrival shuttled United into a completely different galaxy; a galaxy of silverware and stardom.
He was not any ordinary foot-soldier; he was a prima donna phenomenon. He was everything you would want your dream footballer to be like; a tainted genius, a football god.
So naturally when Robin van Persie arrived at M16 two decades later, people did not expect him to better Le King, after all he was their ultimate messiah. The expectations were high for sure, but there was that usual bit of writing-off which happens after the transfer of any marquee player to a big club.
The United faithful were ecstatic though. After a long time they saw a genuine star gracing their grass. Sir Alex Ferguson’s intent was full of purpose. The great Scot saw his Red Devils lose the title on goal-difference to Manchester City the preceding season, leaving a wound that demanded immediate healing. And with the ‘noisy neighbours’ getting louder in the transfer market with their lavish spending, the 72-year-old knew he had to pull another rabbit off his hat.
Arsenal were coming out of another trying trophy-less season, but what haunted them more was the fear of losing more world class players to big clubs. After having lost the likes of Ashley Cole, Theirry Henry, Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri, in the past, Arsene Wenger knew van Persie was on big guns’ radar.
That fear soon turned into reality when the Dutchman himself asked for a transfer. This was followed by an extraordinary turn of events, which saw United boss Sir Alex Ferguson pouncing on the opportunity to sign the forward. The 29-year-old was to become the face of Red Devils’ face-saving campaign.
The only notable thing Arsene Wenger had left to say to his rival Scot was – “He’s better than you think”. And that was it, the medicals were completed and the personal terms were agreed in almost no time. The ‘little boy’ he had inside of him had his wish come true. Robin van Persie was to be announced as a Manchester United player.
It was almost cryptic how he was given to wear the number 20 shirt. The intent was made clear by the former Fenerbache striker though. He was here to win the 20th League title for the Red Devils. Just like the man who made his debut 20 years ago, he struck the right notes with the fans straightaway.
His first goal came in his first game at Old Trafford against Fulham through a expertly taken volley from a Patrice Evra cross. It marked the start of something beautiful for the Old Trafford faithful. The following weekend, he showed exactly why he was the best in the Premier League. Manchester United were 2-1 down at 86 minutes against Southampton, but as it turned out, they finished the game 2-3, thanks to the brilliance of Robin van Persie who scored all three.
As the season progressed, his goal-scoring prowess shone. His goals were making autumn feel like spring to the fans. He was scoring against every top team. Be it Chelsea, Liverpool or his former club Arsenal; they were all proving to be the victims of Persie’s voraciousness for goals.
His form prompted Gary Neville to say – “If he does the same in the Manchester derby in a month’s time, every United fan will know they have a special player on their hands”. It was almost as if Gary Neville jinxed it. The Manchester derby ridiculed all the doubts, if there were any, about Robin van Persie’s credentials.
The game was in the 91st minute, when Manchester United won a free kick 25 yards away from Joe Hart’s goal. Robin van Persie had a brief chat with Wayne Rooney. He made his intent clear. He was ‘going to have a hit’. And a ‘hit’ it was, in every sense of the word. He profoundly lifted the ball over City’s wall and slotted it in the bottom corner.
It was déjà-vu for the City fans. There was no Gary Neville to kiss Persie this time around, but he along with every other United fan knew by then; they had a very special player in hand. After Cristiano Ronaldo, they were finally witnessing someone who was confident enough to strike a free kick so late in the game with such certainty. The swagger of Manchester United was back.
The goals kept on coming and United kept on marching. The campaign looked perfect for both United and their talisman, but unfortunately, the much feared ‘dry-patch’ hindered RvP’s season. He almost suddenly stopped scoring. He netted absolutely nothing between January and late-March. Despite playing wonderful football week-in-week-out, the 19-time English champions crumbled.
United were knocked-out of the FA Cup and the UEFA Champions League by Chelsea and Real Madrid respectively. Luck played a massive part in the latter though. Thanks to some awful decisions made by the referee, United lost to Real Madrid, undeservingly. The only hope of silverware was the Premier League now.
With Persie claiming he joined United to win silverware, there was a lot of justification to be done. A penalty at the Britannia Stadium against Stoke City saw the Dutchman break his duck. He went on to celebrate wildly as hugged the man who was to retire at the end of the season, Sir Alex Ferguson.
As things progressed, Man United became the firm favourites to win the league. The game against Aston Villa at Old Trafford saw them winning their 20th title, with their number 20 scoring a hat-trick in the first half itself. His second was voted the goal of season by the panel and the fans. The ‘little boy’ was right; United was the team for him.
After lifting the Premier League title, his first major trophy ever, he was awarded the Sir Matt Busby Player of the Year trophy by Sir Bobby Charlton. He scored 24 goals in all competition, but what was more significant was his very ocular swagger that melted the fans.
Robin van Persie brought a smile back on Old Trafford faithful’s face. After a very long time they saw a player who was so close to perfection. His technique, his touches, his holding up and his passes were all unreal for not just the fans, but also the players. His ability to take deadly set-pieces only adds-up to his heavy warchest.
This season, he has been out due to injuries but it’s only a matter of time. He started the season with a flurry, scoring two great goals against Swansea City in the opening game of the season, but ultimately slumped to injuries. Some have blamed Moyes’ ‘dinosaur training’ methods for the same. With Wayne Rooney insisting he wants to play as a striker, the Dutch international also welcomed his decision and claimed that people are yet to see their very best.
According to reports, he along with David Moyes played a pivotal role in Rooney’s decision to stay put at the club. Unfortunately for the fans, they have not seen their deadly duo play together that often. A combination of Premier League’s top scorer and top assister is something any club would miss, be it Manchester United.
Persie’s absence has affected the 20-time English champions adversely, as they find themselves in the 7th position of the league table. His return will not only help their form on pitch, but it will also give the fans a much needed morale-tonic. David Moyes has hinted that the 30-year-old talisman might return before New Year. Hopefully, it will bring his team some better fortune.
A player of his standards doesn’t need an invitation to bounce back. Some people complained about his temper and long-lasting injuries. There were also claims about him not fulfilling his potential, but after playing a season like he did; even the critics had their pipes down.
Robin van Persie may not be the perfect professional; he may have a few undesirable scars. But that’s not taking away the fact that he is another one of those who will rest in United’s galaxy of superstars.