MY ODE TO 2012/13 RVP
Manchester United 1-0 Sunderland.
“United have done all they can…”
The raw football fan in me, the one who’d found a home in Sir Alex’s Red Devils was ecstatic, but the other fans around me didn’t share my enthusiasm, partly due to their separate allegiances and also because they knew it wasn’t over yet. Manchester City still had a few more minutes on the clock. If football is a game of moments, Mario Balotelli’s probably one of its most glaring examples. In a City career where he has managed to provide only one assist, it was none other than the pass to a certain No. 16 in sky blue and then it happened.
What turned into probably one of the, if not the most remarkable moment in modern football, the Argentinian took a dagger and as if poetically, shattered the 20th title dream in Fergie time. The teenager that I was, took a few more seconds to register that the hopeful heart was broken, the celebrations were cancelled and the wait for domestic glory prolonged, courtesy of the neighbors who were noisier than usual. The parade bus was red and ready but set out in city blue when it set out on the streets of Manchester.
For everyone else, the 2012/13 season began with the first kick of the ball in the Premier League but the United faithful remember the season end awards where promises were made for foundations to be laid. The momentous speech by the Sir Alex himself, one that sent goosebumps down the spine of supporters, the new ones like me and the decade old loyalists too. If there weren’t chills down the spines of our rivals, they were oblivious of the fact that they had another thing coming.
“I’m a dinosaur, an absolute dinosaur. But what I am, I am a winner!”
City’s story was everywhere we looked, a recurring nightmare that served as a reminder of how my club had thrown away an 8-point lead to their noisy neighbours. Sir Alex Ferguson had to find the perfect response and he looked to an old enemy to help him defeat his new rivals. The main man then went on and engineered one of Manchester United’s most iconic title wins- one that bought me the bragging rights for the first time.
But he did it by bending his own rules, his principles by which the club had operated. Manchester United had a policy of signing young guns, sharpening them into elite superstars who’d paint the town red. But SAF’s time as a managerial demigod was about to draw curtains and boy he wanted to finish with a final flourish. He needed someone who could make a sword, sharpen its blades and then go to war, win it, all on his own.
Any other time, he’d have had to search through leagues, continents, but just a couple hundred miles down south, the English capital had a gift in store. Arsenal’s alpha goalscoring machine in Robin van Persie was linked to both the Manchester clubs as well as Juventus and knowing United’s pulling power, I was excited. Mind you, these were the days before everything was laid open on Twitter and insiders like Fabrizio Romano did not break transfer gossip for breakfast.
Credible football news was rare and in a country as obsessed with cricket as India, the job was even tougher. The back pages had a dedicated 6-inch column for all things football and I was committed to reading every line it offered, hoping to find one that said, “RVP to Man Utd, Done deal!”. It did not come, for the longest of time and then the little kid in the Dutchman made a decision- United had weaved their magic and when Sir Alex Ferguson wished to unleash it, his full beam charm could be an irresistible force. And so, it proved in this case.
On his unveiling, when asked about his choice of kit number, as if reading out from a script of a cliched Hollywood film, he responded aptly.
“I took the No. 20 shirt because I’m here to win a 20th title with United.”
When van Persie arrived, I again nursed a hangover from the season before, ready to put all expectations on the line. And shattered they were. Day one of the league season and Fergie’s lads went home, heads hung, defeated by an abysmal Everton side. RVP did get minutes under his belt, but that dream debut goal for which the very dreamy fan in me had hoped didn’t come. From there on, however, United won 9 of their next 10 league games and there’s no prizes for guessing who was at the very heart of it.
I vividly remember turning on the stream at the 7th minute and BOOM! Nonchalantly connecting with Patrice Evra’s cross to fire a half-volley into the top corner, the RVP juggernaut was rolling. That too, just 10 minutes into his full-debut. The next day, everyone who had seen Man United’s new star-man launch a rocket off his left foot, wanted to replicate it- the impact was gargantuan.
Every football debate around new acquisitions was based on the fact that players need time to adjust. I personally was a propagator that the idea that new signings need time to settle in obviously seemed ridiculous for the striker who had no time to waste and a thirst for the trophy that had eluded him at Arsenal.
As a United fan who has spent most of his recent years yearning for a mere Premier League hattrick, Old Trafford’s then-new assassin had devoured defences on his own, raking up 7 goals in his 8 league games, 3 of which came away at Southampton.
Remember, this wasn’t just any United side, it was a team of seasoned winners. Talent wise, they weren’t the greatest but under Sir Alex’s watchful eye, triumph became a habit. However, the Holland international seemed to be operating a notch above everyone else, enough to turn the little kid in me into a fanboy.
The rest of the United squad may have been bereft of genuine world-class quality but they could rely on van Persie. Hell, I could rely on van Persie to produce a moment of magic that would turn draws into wins pretty much whenever the game screamed for a hero.
Robin van Persie had already scored crucial goals against Chelsea in a 3-2 victory over the West Londoners which was a first at Stamford Bridge in the league for a decade and against his former club too, one which I personally enjoyed the most. You love to see it, obviously.
When the reds of Manchester travelled to the reds of Merseyside, stalemate at 1-1, United won a penalty at the 81st minute and up stepped RVP and along with him the overtly enthusiastic fan in me. It was an almost movie-like moment because the wait made you more aware of how real this situation was and why these games are so special.
He dispatched it into the left-hand side and high. As per usual, van Persie did the business. The guy was just deadly. Late winners at Anfield draw a special adoration from us United fans. RVP though, stopped at nothing and was as focused on the prize of a first English crown as Ferguson was on getting his 13th. And his biggest test came at Manchester City in December 2012.
The scores were level, every United fan feared losing another title to the noisy neighbours. The clock ticked down and late into the game, United drew a free-kick on the right side of the box. In exceptional form, from the other side of the screen, I could see the one and only No. 20 who had managed to become an absolute hero to the United faithful stand over the ball. Joe Hart’s wall was in place and the referee had seconds remaining on his countdown watch.
Aided by a deflection via some suspect Samir Nasri defending, Robin van Persie sealed the three points and shifted the balance of power back to the red side of Manchester, a moment, I’ll always be able to recreate in my mind. And he kept on scoring in what was becoming an electrifying campaign from United’s main act who, like all the very best, elevated those around him.
Failure to score in three games straight, the pessimist in me thought this to be the end of a wonderful streak. van Persie turned the style back on in a blistering run of 9 goals in 10 outings, a sequence that included the 90th minute derby winner at City that I just touched upon, another against Liverpool in a 2-1 victory at Old Trafford and the opener in a draw at Tottenham in January. He had single-handedly hunted the big dogs, racing ahead for the coveted golden boot.
Admittedly, the former Dutch striker had a goalscoring drought between February and April, his longest ever. He did, however, finish the campaign magisterially.
The league was practically wrapped up and waiting for the Red Devils as the man in question had scored a 77th-minute equaliser at West Ham. It meant that when Villa arrived at Old Trafford, a victory would seal the trophy. The world saw RVP turn on the heat, scoring a hattrick as iconic as any at Aston Villa. I exactly remember the date, 22nd April 2013.
Enter van Persie to revel in a performance for the ages. A second hat-trick of the campaign that featured a strike that can be billed as one of English football’s greatest considering the game’s context. It began with a 30-yard pass from Rooney that fell out of the air and on to the instep of Van Persie who, in a picture of fluidity, struck a 20-yard volley that left Brad Guzan, the visiting keeper, a bystander. A strike that left every United fan watching out on their feet and one that left me in awe. As a United fan, I would rank this as the purest volley off that left foot, just above Rooney’s wonder goal against City. You know what I’m referring to.
For RVP after that day, he could play in any team, in any league, in any country in the world and he wouldn’t connect to a ball sweeter than that. Winning that league title wasn’t enough for him. He had to do it in style as well. The title in the bag, United visited Arsenal and with things coming back full circle, the No.9 that was abhorred by one side and adored by the other saw the Dutchman be granted the guard of honour at the hands of his old mates, a picture epochal in itself.
While I wasn’t fortunate enough to witness some magnificent footballers ply their trade, they say Robin van Persie had the technique and guile of Dennis Bergkamp combined with the goal-scoring prowess of Ruud van Nistelrooy. For someone who grew up idolising Sir Alex, just like his manager, van Persie also had an aura and arrogance that inspired others and elevated the performances of those around him.
In terms on impact, on the club and also on me as a fan was monumental to say the least. The forward wasn’t able to replicate that form under David Moyes or Louis van Gaal, and to be very honest, I really don’t care. He will always be remembered as Ferguson’s parting gift, providing my legendary manager with the farewell that his career deserved. That move 8 years ago that proved so pivotal, so crucial, so vital to what was to unfold over the next nine months, was a transfer of its time, a never-to-be-repeated moment of history.