To be honest, it’s an odd feeling. English clubs don’t usually purchase one another’s best players, like is normal in Italy, France, or even Spain. The popularity, and wealth, of the Premier League, is such that it attracts players from around the world and each team seems to have a diversity talent in their squads. But, this day in history it was different and the bonus £1.5 million paid to the selling club at the end of the season was completely worth it.
Just eight days earlier Manchester United was in final negotiations for another top Premier League team’s best player. The fee had already been agreed. Personal terms, not expected to be an issue, were wrapping up. One Premier League club had, in fact, sold their best player to another Premier League club, and today was the day of the first of 30 returns on that purchase.
Sir Alex Ferguson’s team had lost their opening Premier League match a few days earlier, and after the manner in which the title was lost the season before, a slow start could be disastrous. The defence would not be the focal point of this season’s story, but rather goals, and loads of them and it was Arsenal’s eight-year veteran and team captain, Robin van Persie, who would lead the way for Manchester United to title #20.
When the team sheet was released that day the newly added striker was a part of the starting XI. After missing out on title #20 the season before due to goal difference, there was a belief this would not be the case this season, and that belief was correct. Three minutes in to the match, however, United were already down to Fulham at Old Trafford through a Damien Duff goal. A 1-0 loss the week before meant a sinking feeling greeted the fans but that would only last seven minutes. With a high bouncing, seemingly hopeful cross from Patrice Evra on the left, and with Van Persie running past the goal perpendicularly, the angle for any shot on goal from the cross seemed a bit impossible. But as United fans would learn, Van Persie has an eye for goal.
With the defender tight on his hip, Van Persie wrapped his favored left foot around the ball, and defender, and somehow striped the ball back into the far corner, the entire move being one fluid motion. Old Trafford erupted in joy and jubilation as United drew level on the day. The match would finish 3-2 in United’s favor with Shinji Kagawa, Rafael Da Silva and Nemanja Vidic (own goal) adding their names to the scoresheet, but the three points were United’s.
Even now it seems strange seeing Van Persie scoring those goals and celebrating in United red, especially the next season against Arsenal, but it happened. His 30 goals in his first season at Old Trafford still ranks as one of the finest opening season goal returns in United history. At season’s end, Van Persie lifted his first Premier League trophy, even receiving a Guard of Honor at The Emirates from his former teammates, as United had already been confirmed as champions. When Ferguson retired, his newly signed striker seemed to take it the hardest. United’s long-time manager was one of the reasons he had joined United and he had been told Ferguson would not be retiring anytime soon.
“My decision to come to Manchester was partly because of the presence of Ferguson, or excuse me, Sir Alex. And he told me he’d stay for another three years. I enjoyed his approach. “We were once 18 points clear of City but we lost at home 2-1. We were still 15 points ahead but he was furious. Then I realized: he’s a winner.”
Rio Ferdinand recounts the day Ferguson told the team of his decision to retire.
“The moment Sir Alex Ferguson told us in the changing room at Carrington that he was retiring, I looked to my left around 6 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. I, like many of the squad had been lucky enough to have played under Fergie for many years but Robin had just got to the club and part of his fairy-tale of joining was playing under Sir Alex.”
That first game against Fulham four years ago showed exactly what United was getting; a top striker at the top of his game who was fully in love with Manchester United. After Ferguson’s retirement, Van Persie never found the heights he had discovered that first season, as the club as whole wobbled from the retirement of the Great Scot who had been the glue holding together the club for so long now. We wanted him to stay longer than he did but these things happen in football. In the end, his first goal for United was a show of exactly what the Dutchman would bring to United: class, difficulty made easy, and goals.