There have been those that led the team with greater authority, who dominated on the field with greater charisma, who demanded the spotlight fall on them and never leave.
Yet very few, if any, have made the same lasting impression. Very few have thrilled for so long and with such consistency, hardly any have supplied the same reassuring sense of control and composure. Only a handful could pretend to have matched his enduring quality.
Quite simply, none of them have been as good. His short stature is meaningless, for in the end, Paul Scholes stands above them all.
The year: 1994. The English press are fawning over a new English talent; a bright, incisive young footballer, in possession of such natural goal-scoring ability it has already seen him already heralded as the best of his generation. For United fans, it was dispiriting, witnessing it from afar, for the player was Robbie Fowler and for a while it seemed the world was at his feet – or his left boot at least. It’s hard to recall the impact he made at the time, how he was he was the man of the moment, because, as it turned out, the enthralled media, like victims of a child’s prank, were all looking the wrong way.
An hour or so away, Paul Scholes, his nineteen year old stocky frame bustling onto the pitch underneath a shock of ginger, was allowed to emerge in exactly the manner he would have scripted: low-key and without fanfare. In much the same way he would, in time, steal into the area to produce those thundering headers, he quietly stole onto the pitch – and promptly scored twice. Even more impressively, he calmly and effectively began doing what he’s done ever since: dictating play with an intelligence few others can muster.
The fulsome praise of Zidane, Henry, Xavi and others has often been quoted, yet it’s a statement from a friend of mine, in a rare moment of foresight, that astutely captures the moment. As we watched Fowler bang in a hat-trick and the horrifying thought of Liverpool finding their way back to the top started to seem a remote possibility, he simply muttered, with total conviction, “don’t worry about Fowler, Paul Scholes will prove to be an incredible player.”
It’s a revealing comment, not just for the inherent truth of it, but for the stark contrast that ultimately exists between the two players. There are many footballers who shine, but often their dazzle is all too brief – to stay at the top for several years impresses, to do it for a decade is what marks out a legend. To achieve it for nearly twenty years, a category in which only Ryan Giggs partners him, causes the player to go beyond normal comparison. Judging him against his peers is no longer enough. He should be viewed against the best of all time.
His change of role, as he dropped deeper on the pitch as the years advanced, caused his goal-scoring to progressively reduce, to the point where his season’s tally for the last few years can be counted on one hand. His re-positioning has meant his orchestration of the game has greatly increased, and his control of a match has been at times absolute, but it’s sad we have been spared his net-busting in recent times. Long after his retirement, we will reminisce about his sublime passing and recall his shrewd movement, but the abiding memory will be his goals – the thunderbolts, the ferocious headers, the cool composure when faced with an encroaching keeper. He’s a man of many talents but his ability to shatter the back of the net was undoubtedly his most thrilling, an event regularly sweetened by a shy, almost sheepish grin creeping onto his lips.
His passing cannot escape with just a mere mention, though it is near impossible to encapsulate with words alone. He is, quite simply, the best passer I have witnessed, an observation that extends beyond United and traverses the globe. Long, short, on the ground or airborne, there was always a reassurance when the ball was released from either foot. Every time a long-range pass is struck by a player, the likelihood it will reach its intended target is based on hope rather than knowledge, confidence varying depending on the player involved. With Scholes, there was no such concern – only a comforting assurance the ball would not only reach a teammate, but fall perfectly at his feet. Though less likely to make a highlights reel, it’s a skill every bit as mesmerising as an intricate dribble or an eye-catching overhead kick.
His football brain deserves appropriate celebration, but I’ll settle for a succinct anecdote. Another friend, once a professional footballer (not at United), revealed how he would be made to practise a certain technique in training – as the ball was passed to him, he had to look directly behind him to see where other players were, before turning back to receive the ball. Try it – it’s far harder than it sounds. The name of the technique? The Paul Scholes.
As for his defensive ability, it’s an issue worth tackling in the same way Scholes would – at speed, and probably too late. Whacking people’s Achilles heel was always his Achilles heel, but for a man who teased the yellow card out of the referee’s pocket 97 times in the Premier League, the fact that on only four occasions did he see red confirms the measure of self-control he possesses is probably greater than common perception would have you believe.
Nevertheless, he habitually charged in with an erratic rashness that doesn’t befit the player – it’s the wrong choice by the best decision-maker in football. Every other aspect of his game was perfectly judged. He would instinctively know when to shoot or pass, when to go long or keep it short, when to take a touch or play it first time. Untouchable in that respect, it was a product of his awareness on the field, a constantly-altering picture captured in his head of the players around him.
There’s more to acclaim than his skills on the pitch. The nature of Manchester United means the club is equally loved and reviled; for every fan declaring support, there’s several more ready to rejoice in the times of failure. It’s a resentment that, naturally, applies to the players too, prompting those in red to often become figures of hate. There can be no more a fitting tribute to the character, class and quality of Scholes that fans of other clubs not only fail to loathe him, but go much further: they like and admire him. And not just as a footballer, but as a man too. In an era where millionaire footballers accelerate our national game ever further away from the ordinary fan, Scholes resolutely remains rooted to an existence to which we can relate. He has persistently shunned the limelight, has steadfastly refused to employ an agent, and tears home from training and matches to spend time with his family. It’s his football we’ll remember him for, but his determination to remain an Everyman off the field sets him apart with equal distinction.
That his England career ultimately underwhelmed tends to feel like a low point for the national team rather than the player. For Scholes himself, it seems little more than a footnote, an insignificant sideshow compared to his Old Trafford stage. The end of this season will bring the curtain down on his career (with no encore this time), and the tributes will rain down, rightly so, on my favourite ever player. I’ll limit it to this: Scholes is a player who has, during his time, attracted more adjectives than most – the mercurial Paul Scholes, the magician Paul Scholes. The majestic Paul Scholes, the incomparable Paul Scholes.
Time, now, to dispense with them all and employ the only appropriate one left.
The legend Paul Scholes.
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