Goodnight Paul Scholes (again)

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In the spring of 2003, word supposedly reached the Real Madrid dressing-room that the rumours of a new signing from Manchester United were much more than just newspaper talk. Zinedine Zidane and the rest of them began to speculate about the identity of the player who would move from Old Traffod to the Bernabeau and immediately concluded it had to be Paul Scholes. Who else from United could possibly improve their team? Anyway, once they’d settled on the fact it was going to be Scholes, they were thrilled, imagining what an extra dimension he’d bring to their midfield and passing.

While there are no reports on how the Galaticos reacted upon finding out who was actually coming to join them, this tale meant it wasn’t surprising that at the final whistle in Wembley Stadium last Saturday night, no less than five Barcelona players made their way to Scholes in the hope of swapping shirts with him. Maybe two or three years past his prime, he still enjoyed a status that the very best from the very best team of our time sought out a little memento of his greatness. His retirement is overdue but still sad because it robs those of us with children of the opportunity to show them a player who played the right way on and off the field.

This was never the type you’d have to use the word super-injunction around. Perhaps nothing sums up the magic of Scholes more than the simple acknowledgement you could hate Manchester United yet still love the way he played. Yes, we know he never learned to tackle and often wondered why Ferguson didn’t just ban him from even trying. There were so many other gifts to admire though, the willingness to pass, the range of passing, and always, always, the sheer unselfishness of his game. The best part was that Scholes in the twilight of his career was still playing exactly as he’d been taught as a kid at United.

Eric Harrison, the youth team supremo who oversaw the emergence of Scholes and the rest of what will be acknowledged as United’s greatest generation, tells a story in Jim White’s fine book “You’ll Win Nothing With Kids” of a training routine he borrowed from a road safety television commercial. He got the young players to do a passing drill with one stipulation. Before the ball came to them, they had to glance left and glance right to see their options. Simple yet beautiful. A bit like Scholes’ style. Right to the end, this was how he approached his task, scanning the field before the ball arrived then moving it on with purpose. A perfect lesson for children involved in the sport.

The teaching opportunities don’t end there. Scholes lacked pace but compensated for this deficiency by simply thinking faster. You can’t teach pace to a kid who doesn’t have it. However, you can coach them in how to think faster and anticipate better. In this, as in so many other ways, Scholes can be held up as an example to every young player.

Many great players have worn the shirt of Manchester United,” said Bobby Charlton during the build-up to Scholes’ last league game a couple of weeks back. “Players I worshipped then lost with my youth in Munich. Players like Denis Law and George Best who I enjoyed so much as team-mates and now, finally, players I have watched closely in the Alex Ferguson era. And in so many ways Scholes is my favourite.”

You could see why somebody like Charlton found much to love in Scholes. In an era when so many of his peers became distracted by celebrity and obsessed with the material gains available to them as footballers, he remained grounded. Eschewing the movie premieres or the nightclubs or the commercial endorsements, he could be found instead bringing his son to Boundary Park to watch his beloved Oldham Athletic. Never mind that he’d amassed so much wealth playing for United that he could have bought the lower league club, his idea of a night out was a midweek game in a ground that looks exactly like it must have done when his father brought him there during his childhood.

That he’s retired to a behind the scenes coaching role at Carrington is exactly what we would have expected. Not for him travelling around the world trying to wring a last few bob out of his talent like Nicky Butt or David Beckham. It’s difficult to imagine Scholes telling any club he was missing a competitive match in order to attend a testimonial 6000 miles away as Beckham quite ridiculously informed the Los Angeles Galaxy the other week. Indeed, the only team Scholes ever refused to play for when they needed him was England and therein lies another indictment of the English game.

For years, Scholes was either picked out of position or not picked at all as successive England managers opted for media darlings in midfield ahead of him. Eventually growing tired of this and the time he was spending away from his family (this is one instance when that excuse rings true), he opted out of international football seven years ago. It was only when he was gone that it suddenly dawned on pundits how England could really do with a slick-passing midfielder who could hold onto the ball. By then, it was too late and they were stuck with athletic (which really means runs around a lot without achieving much) Gareth Barry and the like.

When they tried to coax him back for last summer’s World Cup, Fabio Capello finally, belatedly realising this sort of player was severely lacking in his side, Scholes couldn’t oblige. Why? He had previously committed to do so some coaching at a children’s soccer camp in Florida that is run by one of his friends. From anybody else that excuse would have been regarded as trite or treasonous. From Scholes, it was typical. He wouldn’t let a pal down just like he never let his team-mates or himself down. One for the ages.

 

(This first appeared after Scholes retired in 2011)
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