'It's still ridiculous' – Van Persie's 2012-13 season at Manchester United | Robin van Persie | The Guardian Skip to main contentSkip to navigationSkip to navigation
Robin van Persie celebrates his 90th-minute winner against Manchester City on 9 December 2012
Robin van Persie celebrates his 90th-minute winner against Manchester City on 9 December 2012. Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian
Robin van Persie celebrates his 90th-minute winner against Manchester City on 9 December 2012. Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian

'It's still ridiculous' – Van Persie's 2012-13 season at Manchester United

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Jonny Evans and Anders Lindegaard pull back the curtain on how the Dutchman gave Sir Alex Ferguson his final title

This was Robin van Persie in the 2012-13 season: 26 goals, two hat-tricks and the Premier League golden boot. It was a campaign in which the Dutchman elevated new teammates and was the X factor in Manchester United’s 20th and most recent championship triumph.

Van Persie’s move from Arsenal in the summer of 2012 was the final masterstroke of Sir Alex Ferguson’s gilded 27-year tenure. The £24m purchase on 17 August had echoes of the Scot’s signing of Eric Cantona from Leeds United in November 1992 for £1m.

As Jonny Evans, who made 29 league appearances in 2012-13, says of Van Persie: “It was a genius signing, to get someone from one of your rival clubs, where he’d been [for so long] – everyone was shocked.”

Cantona had joined with United in eighth and haunted by the previous season, when 24 years without a title stretched to 25. They had been unable to keep Cantona’s Leeds at bay with four matches left, despite a two-point lead and a game in hand. Yet by May 1993 Cantona had proved to be Ferguson’s missing piece, the catalyst in a 10-point triumph ahead of second-placed Aston Villa, as United’s drought ended and a period of generational dominance was established.

When Van Persie arrived United again nursed a hangover from the season before. This time the title was lost on the final day – to Manchester City on goal difference, with Sergio Agüero’s late winner against Queens Park Rangers leaving Ferguson and his players demoralised.

Wayne Rooney’s career-best 27 league goals – including the winner at Sunderland on that last Sunday – found only weak support: Javier Hernández’s 10 was the next highest. Ferguson acted – landing Van Persie in a deal that remains one of the coups of the Premier League era. As Evans says there was surprise when Arsène Wenger allowed the sale to United, though when the 29-year-old refused to renew a contract with 12 months left the manager’s hand was forced.

Van Persie poses alongside Sir Alex Ferguson after signing from Arsenal. Photograph: Jon Super/AP

Anders Lindegaard, who made 10 league appearances as United’s No 1 in 2012-13, says: “Robin arrived after our disappointing second place and during preseason I remember the euphoria. It was almost more that the club went and got him than himself which was inspiring. He’d been a top, top player the previous seasons.”

This, after all, was the incumbent Professional Footballers’ Association and Football Writers’ player of the year whose 30 goals in 2011-12 had supplied 40% of Arsenal’s total return. These made him the golden boot winner, as he finally vanquished serial injury problems to play in all 38 games, registering a strike every 111 minutes while making nine assists.

The beaming Van Persie who sat alongside Ferguson on the day he was unveiled was an instant hit. “He made a big impact from the first day in training with his ability and attributes,” Lindegaard says. “He was one of the most technical players I ever saw; his control of the ball magnificent – with both feet.”

Van Persie’s debut came as a 68th-minute replacement for Danny Welbeck in the opening day 1-0 loss at Everton. From there, though, United won nine of their next 10 league games, Van Persie scoring eight times in six of these. He began with a 10th-minute opener in a victorious home debut against Fulham. Next was a trip to Southampton in early September in which he struck a first hat-trick for the club, despite missing a penalty via an attempted chip with Saints 2-1 ahead.

Kelvin Davies, the Southampton goalkeeper who saved the spot-kick, says: “I got a sense he was going to try something different, something clever maybe. Yet he then went on to score a [hat-trick]. He was the type of player who could handle the big occasions, handle playing for big clubs.”

Van Persie’s mental toughness meant he forgot the error, striking twice more – on 87 and 90 minutes. Later that month United travelled to Liverpool. At 1-1 and 81 minutes in, the visitors won a penalty: up stepped Van Persie. “Obviously for Robin there was real high pressure,” Evans says. “But then he put it into the left-hand side, quite high in the net. The guy was just deadly.”

Late winners at Anfield draw a special adoration from United fans. Van Persie, though, was as focused on the prize of a first English crown as Ferguson was on getting his 13th.

Van Persie with Ashley Young after scoring at Stamford Bridge in October 2012. Photograph: Michael Regan/Getty Images

After a 44th-minute finish in a 4-0 win over Stoke City on 20 October Van Persie scored again in the next outing, a 3-2 victory over Chelsea which was a first at Stamford Bridge in the league for a decade, his attempted shot later leading to Hernández’s 75th-minute winner.

Van Persie’s smart football brain also ensured Chelsea had 10 men for most of the second half. Evans says: “We’d been working in training on trying to get Ashley Young running in between the right-back and right centre-back. There was a moment where Robin caught everyone out and tried a reverse pass with his right foot, into Ashley’s path. Branislav Ivanovic ended up getting sent off for being the last player [when fouling].

“To be able to carry out this kind of plan made Robin the manager’s dream. There are other moments that stand out, too. His goal against Arsenal in his first game against them at Old Trafford – he did so with his [supposedly weaker] right, and you think: ‘This guy can score.’”

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. “His biggest contribution was making everyone else 10% better,” Lindegaard says. “When he arrived there was a sense that nothing could stop us from winning – he was extremely focused, and not just on himself. He played for the team and club.”

After failing to score in the following three league matches, Van Persie turned the style back on in a blistering run of nine goals in 10 outings, a sequence that included a 90th-minute derby winner at City on 9 December, another against Liverpool in a 2-1 victory at Old Trafford and the opener in a draw at Tottenham on 20 January.

After two barren matches there was one against Everton that helped United to a 2-0 victory on 10 February, before Van Persie embarked on his longest dry stretch: five games. He did, however, finish the campaign magisterially.

On 14 April United travelled to Stoke City as the leaders by 15 points. Ferguson’s team had played 32 times, one more than second-place City. Van Persie’s 66th-minute penalty confirmed a 2-0 victory, before he scored a 77th-minute equaliser at West Ham three days later. It meant that when Villa arrived at Old Trafford on Monday 22 April victory would seal the championship.

Enter Van Persie to revel in a performance for the ages. A second hat-trick of the campaign featured a strike that can be billed as one of English football’s greatest considering the game’s context. Van Persie opened up with a tap-in and finished with a near-goal finish but the one in between was sublime.

Van Persie volleys in his second goal against Aston Villa on 22 April 2013 as United secured the title. Photograph: Martin Rickett/PA

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.

Evans says: “Not many people take that shot on. It’s still ridiculous, now. Most would think: ‘Just get it under control.’ The run, the way he pulls off the defender’s shoulder, the way he finished: just world class. He’d been doing stuff like that in training. I was marking him one day and the ball came to his chest on the edge of the box, and he set it up as if going to volley with his left. As I went to block, he’s volleyed it over my head, back on to his right foot, and volleyed it into the net. All in one movement.

“He had this unbelievable finishing ability: left foot, right foot, with great power in his shots. The speed he got on the ball when putting it in the net was frightening. He was a natural-born finisher.”

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Title-glory sealed; euphoria followed. Van Persie would score two more, including in Ferguson’s last match in charge: a 5-5 draw at West Bromwich Albion.

At his unveiling he had spoken of listening to the “little boy inside” when choosing United over City. It proved particularly prescient. “He came to Manchester United to win the title, and he was a man on a mission that year,” says Evans. “Ferguson loved people who could produce things out of the bag, moments of brilliance, moments of magic, and he had that in abundance.”

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