There was so much fuss made about him before he came, because he’d done his knee but we’d waited a year to sign him anyway. Back then, it wasn’t like now, where you’ve got everything on tap. Today, you could go on YouTube to see all his goals. You’d see the odd goal on the news and think: ‘Flipping heck, ok.’ He came in, and before he’d even fully settled and integrated into the team, he was scoring for fun. Pretty soon, things really clicked and he dominated that position. I just watched him in games and up close in training and thought: ‘Wow… this guy.’
What I learnt off Ruud was that he had an obsession with scoring goals. He was fuming in training if he missed the target, fuming with himself. He thought about nothing else but scoring. His movement… he was like a ghost. He was the first player I saw play off the shoulder in an offside position. It went against the rulebook of everything I’d been taught. We’d just paid millions for this guy and he was doing everything that, coming through the ranks of Man United and England, I had been brought up not to do. But then he’d go clean through one-on-one with the goalkeeper. People would shout: ‘How is he through one-on-one?’ Ruud wasn’t the quickest. When Coley went through, he was rapid, Giggsy too. You’re not going to catch them. Ruud would go through one-on-one, but he’s already six yards ahead of everybody else. How has he created that gap in a split second?
Neil Bailey, one of our coaches, used to say to me:
“Don’t watch the ball, watch the man”, when we watched games. So, in my case, I’m watching Ruud. What’s he doing? Me and Bojan Djordjic used to sit there at Old Trafford just analysing the people in our positions. ‘Why’s he doing that? Why’s he doing this?’ Some of the other young lads would get off early. They’d appease the coach, then get off and go to the cinema or wherever, but me and Bo used to sit there as students.
Look at Ruud, how has he scored again? How has he got in that position?
I sat there and worked out why, how, realised what Ruud was doing:
He was invisible. Don’t be seen. Never be seen.
He was always, as a frontman, trying to stretch the play, trying to gain every slight advantage. People talk about what you do off the ball; what he did off the ball enabled him to be in the positions that he was. And he was just a goalscoring machine.
Time moves on, of course, and both Coley and Yorkie left the club not too long after Ruud signed, but then Diego Forlan came in as well. Great lad, Diego, absolutely great, and he spoke good English from the moment he walked through the door. While he was still settling in, he played alongside me in the Reserves. That’s when you get the measure of a player: when you play with him, and I didn’t see any gap between us at that time. That was fine, I didn’t see any problem, it was just somebody else I had to fight with for appearances. At that time, I felt like I was in touching distance of the first-team squad. I’d already made my debut, already played two games, I semi-got what it felt like, I just wanted to get there all the time. That’s all I could think. How could I do it? I had to go on loan to get some experience, which I did with Watford.