AMIDST the cascading emotions, everlasting memories and heartfelt gratitude bursting from Old Trafford at Sir Alex Ferguson’s last ever home game as Manchester United manager, it would have been easy to forget during the fanfare of last Sunday’s game against Swansea City that the Theatre of Dreams was also saying farewell to arguably its finest ever performer.
Paul Scholes will follow his manager into retirement at the end of the season after 19 glittering years in the red shirt.
Scholes, with 717 appearances for the Reds, stands third overall in the list of record appearances, behind Sir Bobby Charlton’s 758 and Ryan Giggs’ 940 (and counting).
He’s won 11 Premier League titles, three FA Cups, two League Cups, five Community Shields and two Champions League titles; scoring 155 (mainly stunning) goals.
When you talk about loyalty and longevity at United, the majority would instantly think of Ryan Giggs. But while the Welshman has been a superb servant and an excellent player for United, Scholes’ world class ability and talent stands him among the very best players United have ever produced.
Many critics and supporters balked when Giggs was named PFA player of the year in 2009. They argued that Giggs had come first in a largely weak field and that he’d won the award as consolation for having never won it previously.
When I think and laugh about that, I actually think a little harder and I wonder how in the hell it is that Scholes never won the award. He has never even been nominated for the award. He has never picked up a PFA young player of the year accolade and has never been voted football writers’ player of the year. Nor, either, has he won or been nominated for the world player of the year crown – despite a whole host of amazing players past and present lining up to salute his brilliance.
“In the last 15 to 20 years the best central midfielder that I have seen — the most complete — is Scholes. I have spoken with Xabi Alonso about this many times. Scholes is a spectacular player who has everything. He can play the final pass, he can score, he is strong, he never gets knocked off the ball and he doesn’t give possession away. If he had been Spanish then maybe he would have been valued more.”
“Out of everyone at Manchester United, I would pick out Scholes – he is the best midfielder of his generation. I would have loved to have played alongside him.”
Inter Milan owner Massimo Moratti’s adviser Pino Pagliara
“I told Moratti Scholes is a ‘mission impossible’ man. It’s more than money with him. He was born just a few blocks away from Old Trafford. It’s about wearing United’s colours.”
“If he was playing with me, I would have scored so many more.”
“Scholes is one of the most complete footballers I’’e ever seen. His one-touch play is phenomenal. Whenever I have played against him, I never felt I could get close to him.”
“Paul Scholes has been the best England midfield player for 30-odd years. You’d probably have to go back to Bobby Charlton to find someone who could do as much as Scholes. When the ball arrives at his feet he could tell you where every player on that pitch is at that moment. His awareness is superb.”
“At La Masia (the Barcelona youth academy) his name was mentioned a lot. In some ways, he was one of our teachers.”
Well, if Scholes is good enough to be endorsed by Messi and Pele, then he’s good enough for me.
Thierry Henry, himself the PFA player of the year in both the 2002/03 and 2003/04 seasons, as well as FWA player of the year in the same years and also in 2005/06, has said of Scholes: “For years Paul Scholes has been one of the best players in the Premiership. He’s incredible. He has always been underrated throughout his career. He’s a team player, a one and two-touch footballer who makes good decisions on the pitch and makes his team play.
“I can’t understand why Scholes has never won the player of the year award. He should have won it long ago. Maybe it’s because he doesn’t seek the limelight like some of the other ‘stars’.
It’s a sentiment echoed by many other admirers of Scholes. It’s been said that because he didn’t crave the limelight, because he wasn’t an advertiser’s dream or a pin-up boy like David Beckham, because he shied away from the spotlight and preferred a quiet night in with his family in front of the TV, because he was first and foremost a footballer, that the awards eluded him.
To be fair, while United fans themselves might get enraged at the perceived lack of credit afforded to Scholes, it’s a safe bet that the man himself probably couldn’t care less.
Almost as impressive as the plaudits heaped upon Scholes is the self-effacing humour in the few things he has been quoted as saying about himself down the years:
On the media
“I don’t like compliments. I would rather people have a go at me so I can prove them wrong.”
On life out of the spotlight
“My ideal day? Train in the morning, pick up the kids from school, go home, play with kids, have tea, get them up to bed, and then come down and watch a bit of TV.”
On the Champions League triumph of 2008
“I was first on the bus afterwards. But I always am. What’s the point in hanging around? I was pleased with what we had done but didn’t want to spend all night talking about it.”
The scandal of Scholes being overlooked for some of English and world football’s biggest individual honours aside, I think I speak for most United fans when I say that the medals Scholes has won at United and the trophies he has helped us collect are for more significant.
The pleasure of being able to watch the local lad from Manchester spray passes, dictate games single-handedly and score some fantastic goals in a red shirt has been one of the highlights of my time as a United fan, while I will be eternally privileged to say that I’ve seen Paul Scholes play in the flesh.
The stunning, thunderbolt strikes against Bradford City, Aston Villa, Newcastle and Middlesbrough; the superb chip following an excellent team move against Panathinaikos in 2000; the sublime individual goal against Blackburn Rovers in 2007 and who can forget the countless pin-point passes over vast distances and into seemingly impossible areas. I could go on all day.
True, the magic of Scholes may not resonate quite as high as it did in his pomp, his appearances in and influence on the United team in recent years having increasingly dwindled.
As with any footballing talent, there were still flashes of brilliance. His decision to come out of retirement was a masterstroke by Ferguson and an admission from the great man himself that his initial decision had been made a little hastily.
United fans and the football world had been gazumped when a familiar name appeared on the United squad sheet for an FA Cup fixture with Manchester City in January 2012, albeit with the number 22 next to it rather the famous 18 – 22 was Scholes’ United squad number for his early years.
And for the rest of the 2011/12 season, it was like he had never been away.
‘Sat Nav’ was directing the Reds towards our intended and familiar destination of the Premier League trophy.
Although it was amazing to have him back, it was alarming just how much we had missed him and needed him back – an indication to the club, even though Michael Carrick has stepped into the void this season, that the midfield conundrum has persisted to mystify Sir Alex.
Injuries and age have begun to catch up with Scholes this season – limiting him to just 20 appearances.
Unlike fellow ‘Fergie fledgling’ Giggs, Scholes’ fading legs have begun to show, while the Welshman seems to only get more graceful with age.
Even for a United fan like me, who can count the fledging era as my generation, I can still find it difficult to replace the image of Scholes now with the one then.
It is only really with thorough research, archive exploring, YouTube reels and the ‘Scholes The Goals’ tribute show that I’ve marked as ‘keep’ on my Sky planner from several years ago when he reached the milestone of 100 Premier League goals and that I’ve watched countless times, that I can truly grasp just how superb, brilliant and dazzling he was. He was a special player.
The messages emanating from Old Trafford since Fergie announced his retirement have been of immense gratitude and a huge debt that all United fans owe our legendary manager.