We never know what we’ve lost until it’s gone. With a global lockdown and virtually no sports being played, the mind racks up memories of days gone by and for Manchester United fans, today was indeed a majestic day. It was the day of the Volley the majestic Robin Van Persie masterpiece that had the aesthetics of painting by another tortured Dutch maestro.
Robin Van Persie might have picked the ball instead of a paintbrush, but he was majestic in every way. Remember his Superman-Esque goal against Spain in 2014 that was the first nail in the coffin of tiki-taka, ending the reign of the most talented Spanish armada that had ruled the roost since 2008.
Down 1-0, Van Persie leapt to meet a Daley Blind cross with Iker Casillas trapped in No Man’s Land. All that was missing was the cape. If Van Persie’s picturesque goal buried one footballing dynasty, his one for Manchester United – scored a year earlier on April 22, 2013 – signalled the last hurrah of another dynasty.
The year was 2013. Sir Alex Ferguson still hadn’t decided to retire and had agonisingly lost the title to Manchester City in the 2012 season. Even more theatrically, it happened deep in injury time as Aguero scored to win 3-2 and to make City champions.
The Citizens scored twice in injury time, the first team to do so in a major league or competition since Manchester United in 1999. An angry Ferguson – who was nearing his last season – decided that he’d never lose the title on goal difference and signed Robin Van Persie from Arsenal.
The Professor – as Arsene Wenger was known then – was agonised but preferred Van Persie move to Manchester United than Manchester City or Juventus. The Dutchman was roundly mocked for saying the little boy in him cried for Manchester United, but it was to be a match made in heaven.
Van Persie hit the ground running, teaming up majestically with Wayne Rooney. The unique thing about Rooney was that while he was a world-class player, he made other world-class players around him tick better as we saw with Ronaldo.
With five games left, United needed to win against Aston Villa to get back the title they had lost so agonisingly last year. Van Persie scored early on, 2 minutes in with a tap in to make it one-nil.
What followed that was what Sir Alex Ferguson called ‘The Goal of the Century’.
Ferguson noted that while most players could pull off the no-look over the shoulder volley once every hundred times, Van Persie could do it every time in training. Van Persie had always been a master of volleys and half-volleys from his Arsenal days, but no goal matched what he did that day.
13 minutes in, Wayne Rooney who was playing in midfield played a delicious Scholesque-lob which seemed to hang in the air – much like Van Persie in the Spain game – before dropping for the Dutchman who connected without looking with the sweet part of his foot.
Brad Guzan, the poor American on the wrong end of the drubbing, could do nothing but watch as the ball sailed past him. Even if he was on his line there was little, he could do.
Later describing the goal, Van Persie said: “When you’ve got players like Wayne, Carrick, Scholesy – sooner or later, they will find you, that’s just a very good feeling. That’s even more important than getting all the ball; it’s a feeling that from every angle they can find you. Because of that, the belief is always there. Sooner or later they will find me, so you always stay positive, because you know that the moment will come. So Wayne and I had talked before the game about the pass over the Villa defence. We’d worked on it in the training, too. There are a few things that have to come together, though, from the moment Wayne hits the pass. First, you’re making a run for your space. Then, when you’ve finally got your space, you have to count your steps, because if my last step is too big or too small then I can’t really connect right. I have to have a quick look to see roughly where the ball will go. Then, just before I hit it, I need to have another look because I know already where the goal is. Everything came together at that moment. You practise these things, you plan them, but when it comes off in a game like that, in the way it did, that’s what you dream of.”
Van Persie would score one more in the 33rd minute to complete a first-half hat-trick and Ferguson later said: “It was the goal of the century for me. It was marvellous – the technique with his head down, over the ball and just perfect timing. It was a magnificent strike. He scored the same goal against Arsenal. He is in his mature years and winning the league tonight meant a lot to him."
Interestingly, he missed out the Puskas award, which went to a future Manchester United player.
That was to be Ferguson’s last hurrah. Van Persie – who left Arsenal to win the league – finally managed it.
At the end of the season, greatest football manager of all time decided to step down.
In the process, he had knocked Liverpool off their f** perch, giving United 20 titles to Liverpool’s 18. The wait continues for the Merseysiders, whose chance to comfortably win the league might just have been taken away by a bat halfway around the world!
The last great team slowly left for pastures new. Paul Scholes retired. Ryan Giggs played one more year before hanging up his boots.
After Sir Alex Ferguson and David Gill retired, United crumbled like a pack of cards. The same squad that won the title with time to spare managed to come 7th under David Moyes.
Nemanja Vidic left for Inter Milan a year later. Rio Ferdinand left for Queens Park Rangers. Patrice Evra joined Juventus. Van Persie would soon leave after falling out with Louis Van Gaal – a truly dark era at United. Rooney would stick on a few years before leaving for Everton. Michael Carrick retired. Rafael Da Silva left for Lyon. Ferguson’s last great United team slowly dispersed.
For now, United fans must be content with the slow rebuilding that seemed to have gathered steam around Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, but when they are feeling nostalgic, they look back at the perfect piece of art created by the Dutch maestro. A goal that will always bear testimony to his genius.