“The moment Sir Alex Ferguson told us in the changing room at Carrington that he was retiring, I looked to my left around six lockers where I saw a totally devastating looking RVP… he was shaking his head in shock, completely disheartened it seemed. Robin took it the worst out of the whole squad.”
If Manchester United fans were at a loss to understand why Robin van Persie was unable to recreate his scintillating form of 2012-13 in the two disappointing, injury-plagued campaigns that followed, Rio Ferdinand has the answer.
The former United centre-back paid tribute to the Netherlands striker as Van Persie prepared for his move to Fenerbahce, and in doing so shed light on the 31-year-old’s fall from grace at Old Trafford.
Upon signing for United in 2012, Van Persie justified the move to the seething Arsenal faithful – who accused him of pure greed – by saying he was listening to “the little boy within – and he screamed United.”
But while United could, and still can, attract top players, a key motivation for Van Persie to swap Arsenal’s red for the Red Devils was Sir Alex Ferguson.
For 26 years, Ferguson was United. From his first official press conference at Old Trafford, the striker was in awe as the great Scot lavished praise on his star signing.
Critics suggested Van Persie didn’t have the legs to last a full season, while Piers Morgan took to renaming his once beloved Arsenal striker “Van Pursestrings.”
Thirty-eight Premier League appearances and 26 goals later, he sent Morgan a signed photo of him kissing the Premier League trophy with a teasing message that ended: “All the best, Van Pursestrings.”
Ferguson has dealt with mercurial talents before who need a little more TLC than the rest of the squad: he stuck by Eric Cantona and was rewarded with titles and the foundations of domestic dominance; Cristiano Ronaldo enraged fans who saw a sulking ego with promise, but Ferguson nurtured that talent into becoming the world’s best in 2008.
The forward was even allowed to publicly embarrass the club in pining for Real Madrid that year, though Ferguson too stood by the petulant Portuguese and was rewarded with another title and a Champions League final before receiving a world-record fee.
Van Persie may never be considered in Ronaldo’s league, but he is a rare breed of match-winner that can turn a game in a single instant. That was why Ferguson decided to shell out £24 million on a 29-year-old with patchy fitness – the manager had likely decided the 2012-13 season would be his last, and was not about to deny himself after Manchester City shocked United with a late title triumph.
How do you distract attention away from noisy neighbours?
Park a sports car in your driveway.
The problem with most sports cars is that they are unreliable, particularly in the English drizzle. Van Persie was allowed to micro-manage his training under Ferguson, hence his superb return of 31 starts and an appearance in every Premier League fixture that year.
That the striker struggled with persistent problems under David Moyes – who “overtrained” Van Persie with “dinosaur” methods, according to Dutch fitness specialist Raymond Verheijen – is no surprise.
Moyes treated Van Persie as if he were a young defensive midfielder, somebody who needed to pledge his allegiance to the new regime by running laps.
Van Persie’s response to Ferguson’s retirement says a lot; a few months away from 30, the forward was a little too long in the tooth to readjust his game for a young manager with no silverware and fewer ideas.
A return of 12 goals in 21 league appearances told the story, while Van Persie simply took to ignoring Moyes and his staff’s medical advice entirely.
The real blow for United fans is that Louis van Gaal was expected to kickstart Van Persie’s Old Trafford career, but if anything the forward’s stock fell further. Van Persie was widely tipped to be named United captain by Van Gaal after the pair’s impressive 2014 World Cup in Brazil, though the coach ended up picking Wayne Rooney.
Though he made more appearances last season than the previous one – 27 – a tally of just 10 goals has seen United accept a bid from Fenerbahce despite having just Rooney and James Wilson on the books up front.
There is a sense among fans of Van Persie’s United career being a missed opportunity: few top clubs if any sign each other’s star players with something still left to give, and for a brief while it seemed that Arsenal had gifted their rivals their talisman for a song.
In truth, Van Persie needed Ferguson more than he needed United. The striker craved a Premier League title and got his wish, but he moved to United because Ferguson was the man who could help him achieve that goal.
Van Persie said upon joining United that it was a “family club” – the disappointment for the striker was that the head of the family left just as he had gotten his feet under the table.
Moyes and Van Gaal were poor stepfathers to Van Persie, though in Fenerbahce the striker has found another club to embrace him and build a life – and the money won’t be too bad either.
But United fans will always remember that for one brief season, the former captain of their bitter rivals fulfilled on his promise to become the best in England, and perhaps one of the best in the world, in the red of United.
His first ever United goal – a sumptuous half-volley on the turn against Fulham – was a glorious statement of intent, while more magic followed: goals galore at Southampton; a penalty at Liverpool; an early strike against Arsenal; the last-minute free kick at Man City; that goal against Aston Villa.
Van Persie joined United as a greying 29-year-old who had battled injury problems and been on the cusp of greatness at Arsenal.
Though the forward will never forget the good times at Old Trafford, he maybe never banked on just how much growing up he would have to do at United.
Both Van Persie and United are no longer what each other had signed up for three years ago, and there is no shame in a transfer to Turkey where he will be treated as a demi-god.
The Flying Dutchman’s move to United was a reminder in itself that there is still time to go against the grain and realise one’s ambitions if the will is there.
But Van Persie is no Peter Pan, and time eventually caught up with him at Old Trafford. Still, the little boy that screamed United was at least able to delay the inevitable for just long enough to achieve his title dreams alongside Ferguson.