Lessons from a Legend – Ruud Van Nistelrooy

Learning from Van Nistelrooy

Six Lessons from a Legend

I was in Amsterdam last month presenting a Masterclass to soccer and cycling teams when a hand when up from the back of the room.

“Do you think it’s best to be a coach who is very methodical or a skilled people person?”

I knew my answer, however when I noticed the question was from Ruud van Nistelrooy, the fifth-highest goalscorer in Champions League history I paused for a second.

“Always a skilled people person first” I replied.

I followed up asking Ruud what he believed.

Ruud’s reply was very enlightening

“I agree completely, that’s why I like your book Game Changer so much, because you present both methodology and art of coaching. There are too many coaches now who have very complicated schemes, but they cannot communicate or get people to play for them.’

But what Ruud said next was most important for coaches and leaders to hear.

“I’ve played for both Alex Ferguson and Bobby Robson and they were the best coaches at getting the most from me”.


In sport and business there has been a trend very recently to a more data-driven decision-making process at the expense of people skills. It’s a good reminder that people respond to people. Hearing it first-hand from one of soccer’s greatest players is all the reinforcement you should need.

Old Fashioned Values

During a break I later asked Ruud about a story I had heard from some of the United coaches many years ago and wanted to know if it was true.

Alex Ferguson wanted to sign Van Nistelrooy in 2000 from PSV Eindhoven. Van Nistelrooy had just scored a remarkable 29 goals in 23 games during the 1999-2000 season. However, Ruud failed the medical and the transfer, then estimated at $25 million collapsed.

Shortly after returning home to PSV tragedy struck, and Van Nistelrooy tore the ACL in his right knee. Not only had the deal collapsed, but now he was facing surgery and a career threatening injury.

But the story didn’t end there.

As Ruud Van Nistelrooy came to terms with the injury and faced the reality of a long rehabilitation, his phone rang. Alex Ferguson had heard the news, and was calling him to support him, encourage him. But Ferguson went further. He assured him that if he got back to full fitness, United would come for him again.

Van Nistelrooy worked harder than ever and the following summer Alex Ferguson kept his word. Manchester United signed him for even more than they initially had offered.

Van Nistelrooy repaid the loyalty, belief and faith Ferguson and Manchester United had shown in him and scored 150 goals in 219 games for the United.

Perhaps I’m old fashioned, but I was still amazed why Alex would give his word and take such a gamble. Van Nistelrooy explained to me that it wasn’t a gamble – not for Ferguson.

Ruud explained Alex Ferguson met him in person, came to his apartment, saw how he lived. Noticed it was tidy, that he was dedicated, a professional and was composed. Ferguson was investing in the person Ruud Van Nistelrooy, not just the player.

Alex Ferguson, underestimate him as a coach, but his ability to understand people can never be questioned.


What lessons can you take from this?

  1. – Methodology is important – but develop people skills if you want people to excel
  2. – Values matter. Keeping your word still matters in sport and business
  3. – As a player – never give up. Injuries and set backs are temporary.
  4. – If you’re a player – remember good coaches see everything!  
  5. – Encouraging others when they stumble will reward you – perhaps more than you realize. 
  6. – Never bet on the capability alone. Bet on the person. Character.


As I left that evening Ruud stopped me one last time.

“Fergus, you know the story you told earlier this evening about losing to Manchester United 3-1 when you were starting out on your career at Bolton Wanderers?”

“Yes”, I replied.

“I scored in that game.


Ruud Van Nistelrooy smiled, winked and walked away.


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