Luc Nilis: the timeless genius of a man Ronaldo hailed as his greatest strike partner

Luc Nilis: the timeless genius of a man Ronaldo hailed as his greatest strike partner

Even to the most casual followers of the beautiful game, Brazilian legend Ronaldo needs no introduction. Whether it’s his lone season at Barcelona where he redefined the meaning of the term wonderkid, his nightmarish fall from grace beginning at France 98, or his glorious redemption four years later in Yokohama, every football fan has at least one image of the buck-toothed phenomenon etched into their sporting consciousness. 

With a resume as great as his, it’s only natural that he played alongside some of the finest players of his generation. So when, in 2009, an interviewer asked the former Gálactico who his all-time favourite strike partner was, an endless glut of attacking royalty immediately sprang to mind. Would he choose Rivaldo, the majestic craftsman who partnered him to World Cup glory? Or perhaps his idol and predecessor Romário, their brief but tantalising partnership leaving the world begging for more as they telepathically tore apart defences throughout 1997?

Ronaldo’s answer was neither of his aforementioned countrymen, nor was it Raúl, Baggio, Vieri or Adriano. The person Ronaldo rated as his greatest foil was a less celebrated Belgian by the name of Luc Nilis. “I’ve played with big players like Figo, Romário, Zidane, Rivaldo, Djorkaeff and Raúl, but it clicked best with Luc Nilis, whom I played with at PSV. He was simply fantastic, the greatest partner I had played with, despite sharing a brief time with him.”

Far from a household name outside of the Netherlands and his home nation, Nilis is best remembered by most UK fans for the gut-wrenching, career-ending leg break he suffered in only his second Premier League match, overshadowing the endless magic he produced in his glorious pomp. Nilis’ name belongs to an unfortunate list headed by Eduardo and David Busst, of players victim to injuries of such an aesthetically-appalling nature that it transcends their entire careers in the minds of many. An ugly end to a beautiful career. 

While to some fans Ronaldo’s selection of Nilis as his premier strike partner will seem like the Brazilian’s most baffling decision since he unleashed a genuine crime against haircuts at the 2002 World Cup, to those who closely followed the elegant Belgians’ career, Ronaldo’s words will serve as sweet justice for one of the Eredivisie’s great players. Throughout his impeccable six years in Eindhoven with PSV, Nilis was poacher, creator and artist rolled into one, with his insatiable goal count usurped only by his penchant for the spectacular.  

Happy operating as either a secondary striker or as an out and out number 9, Nilis was excellent with both feet; his potent blend of guile, vision and technique created countless chances for his star-studded strike partners, while allowing Nilis himself to produce an endless array of jaw-dropping, individual goals. Blessed with neither the soaring pace nor the imposing physique possessed by some of his contemporaries, the gangly Belgian was craft personified. His elegant dribbling, sniper-like shooting accuracy and clever link-up play meant he was always a yard too quick in the head for most defenders to handle.

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Growing up in the Limburg Village of Zonhoven, Nilis – whose father Roger had also been a professional footballer – was given his senior debut as a 16-year-old in 1984 by second division outfit Winterslag, a club that would later merge to form modern-day Genk. Already a highly touted prospect with caps at under-18 level for his country, the young Belgian needed little time to adapt to the professional game, netting 16 times in 47 games across two seasons.

His promising performances in the second tier turned the heads of the Belgian game’s giants and Nilis signed for champions Anderlecht at the start of the 1986/87 season. This gave the teenager an opportunity to compete for the top honours domestically, while simultaneously mixing with the continent’s finest in the European Cup.

Although Nilis’ first season in purple and white would see the Brussels club retain their league championship, it was the following campaign where he established himself as a force to be reckoned with, scoring 14 in the league as well as the opening goal in the Belgian Cup final victory over Standard Liege. It was during this period that Nilis demonstrated just how lethal he could be when partnered with a goal obsessed accomplice, as he forged a deadly partnership with Australian international Edi Krnčević.

Announcing their arrival with a goal apiece in the aforementioned cup final, Nilis and Krnčević proved these exploits were no flash in the pan as they terrorised defences throughout the 1988/89 season, scoring 42 league goals between them. Using his selflessness and speed of thought to accentuate the abilities of a more traditional striker, Nilis’ partnership with Krnčević looks, in retrospect, like an amuse-bouche to the greater glories he would enjoy alongside more famous foils in years to come.

The departure of Krnčević the following summer coincided with the appointment of Aad de Mos as manager, a figure who would play a key part in Nilis’ career. Under his new coach’s guidance, Nilis established himself as a regular in the Belgium squad thanks to a stellar season where Anderlecht reached the Cup Winners’ Cup final. Although they would ultimately lose the final to a Sampdoria side featuring the likes of Gianluca Vialli and Roberto Mancini, Nilis’ four goals in earlier rounds, including a decisive semi-final strike against Dinamo Bucharest, ensured that the rest of the continent became privy to talents already notorious in his homeland.

Nilis went from strength to strength as the 90s progressed – and so too did Anderlecht, who built a talented side centred around Belgian talents such as Marc Degryse and Phillipe Albert alongside the foreign mite of Pär Zetterberg, John Bosman and Luis Oliveira. The highlight of his eight years in Brussels was his final season where Anderlecht, under the stewardship of Johan Boskamp, secured a domestic league and cup double, with an inspired Nilis scoring 36 times across all competitions.

Although it had been obvious for some time that he, now at the peak of his powers, had outgrown the Belgian top-flight, his impeccable eight years in the capital were given a fitting crescendo in the domestic Belgian Cup final, where his cool finish sealed a 2-0 win over Club Brugge in what would be his final game for the club.

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While many in Belgium expected their top striker, approaching his peak at 27, to sign for a club in either the Premier League or Serie A, Nilis reunited with former coach De Mos and signed for PSV in a £2.5m deal. 

The Dutch giants have an unbelievably rich history when it comes to strikers, with many of the greatest number 9s using the Phillips Stadion as a prestigious finishing school, before graduating onto the superclubs of the game. This renowned process was in full swing when Nilis signed in ’94, with a departing Romário being replaced by Ronaldo, perhaps the only young striker in the world capable of filling his boots. 

Still in the infancy of his career, Ronaldo was, at this time, perhaps the most enticing rough diamond the sport had witnessed since a young Diego Maradona was plying his trade at Argentinos Juniors. His superhuman blend of power, pace and skill was to be paired alongside the craft of his more experienced Belgian strike partner. The results were predictable.

Although PSV had a mixed season – De Mos was sacked in October and eventually replaced Dick Advocaat – their two strikers were unplayable, with the selfless link-up play of Nilis proving instrumental in his Brazilian counterpart’s ability to wreak havoc on Eredivisie defences. Despite coming up short to Louis van Gaal’s immortal Ajax in the league, it would be Ronaldo and Nilis who dominated the individual honours list.

While the Brazilian’s 30 goals predictably placed him as the league’s top scorer, it was his Belgian counterpart who was named Dutch Footballer of the Year, an outstanding achievement for a player competing against the best of Ajax’s European Cup-winning team, not to mention Ronaldo himself. 

Sadly, the 1994/95 season would be the only time we got to witness the poetic partnership in full swing for a sustained period of time, with Ronaldo’s notorious knee problems rearing their ugly head for the first time the following season. By the summer of ’96, Ó Fenómeno had departed for the bright lights of Barcelona. 

Thankfully for PSV, however, Nilis relished leading the line in the absence of his prodigious partner, becoming the Eredivisie’s top scorer in two consecutive seasons while scoring an avalanche of beautiful goals in the process. With a squad featuring the likes of Jaap Stam, Philip Cocu, Bolo Zenden and Nilis’ old teammate Degryse, PSV would win the 1995 KNVB Beker as well as the following season’s league title. Already a hero in Holland, the Belgian’s European reputation was enhanced considerably during this period thanks to a brace in the Camp Nou against Johan Cruyff’s Barcelona and two superlative strikes against Leeds.

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One of Belgium’s most notorious players during this era, Nilis was not as prolific with the national team as he was at club level, scoring ten goals in 56 appearances. Although he would represent the Rode Duivels at four major tournaments, Nilis’ greatest moment for his country was undoubtedly the two playoff goals he scored against the Republic of Ireland that ensured Belgium made it to France 98. To add insult to injury, the deciding strike was the third goal Nilis had put past the Irish keeper Shay Given in a fortnight, having also scored against his club Newcastle in the Champions League.

With Sir Bobby Robson appointed PSV manager in 1998, Nilis would find his last great strike partner in the form of Ruud van Nistelrooy. After three seasons as PSV’s main talisman, many strikers would’ve been too egotistical to have tolerated a young pretender with half their pedigree coming in to lead the line. Nilis was no ordinary striker, however; his selflessness and all-round ability ensured that his move back to a supporting role was no demotion but an opportunity for his creativity to shine brighter than it had before.

Described by the always quotable Robson as “going together like bacon and eggs”, Nilis and Van Nistelrooy really were the perfect partnership for one another. Armed with a completely different set of attributes, any deficiencies Nilis had in terms of power and pace were completely eradicated by the brawn of his goal-hungry apprentice, while the one-track mind of Van Nistelrooy received no end of benefits from his mentor’s creativity.

Despite a frankly ridiculous 55 league goals between them – Van Nistelrooy scoring 31 and Nilis 24 – the 1998/99 title alluded PSV and Robson departed at the end of the season. Thankfully, in their second and final season together, the pair would receive the silverware their partnership deserved as PSV, under the management of Eric Gerets, steamrolled the Eredivisie, winning the league by 16 points.

The relationship between the two players was documented brilliantly by Van Nistelrooy when he said: “I owe everything in this world to him. There is not another player I respect as much as Luc and I doubt if there are another two players who are as close as we are. He drove me nuts at times. Sometimes I could throttle him and really hate him; maybe the other way round it was the same. But love and hate are always very close and that’s why we became the best of friends.”

At the age of 33 and with his contract at PSV expired, Nilis knew it was now or never if he wanted to test himself in one of Europe’s big leagues. Despite reported interest from the likes of Liverpool, Nilis opted to sign for Aston Villa on a free transfer, creating quite a buzz amongst fans of the Midlands club. Although he was beyond the traditional peak age for a striker, it was thought that Nilis, a player reliant on intelligence and skill rather than pace and athleticism, could have the sort of career longevity that made evergreen striker Teddy Sheringham a constant force well into his 30s.

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On his Premier League debut, Nilis showed English fans just what they’d been missing with a glorious home goal against Chelsea. Receiving a low cross from Alan Wright in the Chelsea box, he embarrassed a sliding Frank Leboeuf with a clever right-footed chip before rifling home a stunning volley with his left. The goal had all the hallmark traits of a vintage Nilis strike, from the lightning-quick speed of thought, the glorious two-footed technique and the sort of exquisite finish that had become routine viewing for PSV fans. Little did we know it was to be the last goal of his career.

In a genuinely heartbreaking moment, Nilis, in only his third Premier League game, collided with Ipswich goalkeeper Richard Wright while attempting to meet an incoming cross. It resulted in one of the most visceral, disturbing injuries the Premier League had seen, with not only Nilis but the rest of the players on the pitch immediately recognising the severity of the situation.

The injury proved to be a compound fracture of his right leg, potentially fatal news for the career of any athlete and Nilis’ announced his retirement four months later. To make matters worse, an infection in the injured leg resulted in the very real possibility of limb amputation for the crestfallen forward. “It was the worst moment of my life to be told I might have to lose part of my leg – that will live with me forever. I cried when I was told, it has been a nightmare and sometimes I wonder how I can get through the day – it has affected me very badly mentally.”

For Nilis, a player who had given so much to football with his professionalism and mentoring qualities, this was the cruellest of endings. During his career, it often seemed that he played the game with a smile permanently etched across his face, which made his post-injury claims all the more devastating. 

Thankfully, the initial fears of amputation did not manifest and Nilis has since embarked on a fruitful career as a coach. In a poetic twist of fate, Nilis, a PSV legend renowned for his ability to mentor younger strike partners, found himself as the striker coach at the Phillips Stadion from 2015 to 2018 before moving onto VVV-Venlo. It’s difficult to imagine a more perfect role for a player who scored 110 goals in the famous red and white, and few would bet against footballs next great attacking prodigy emerging under the tutelage of the Belgian legend.

Although Nilis’ playing career ended on the sourest of notes, the greatness he demonstrated throughout his time at PSV should leave no doubts about his legacy. Nicknamed ‘Lucky Luc’ on account of his ability to pop up in the right place at the right time, one only needs to look at a compilation of his finest goals to see that it was less luck and more Bergkamp-esque invention that was responsible for the Belgian’s enduring magic.

Whether it was a deft chip over a helpless goalkeeper, an unstoppable long-range screamer curled into the top corner, or a sumptuous through ball for one of his pacier strike partners to feast upon, Luc Nilis could do it all. Just ask Ronaldo, Van Nistelrooy, Sir Bobby or any member of his adoring Eindhoven public.

By James Sweeney @James_Sweeney92

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