By Ewan Roberts
A look of baffled, incredulous disbelief washes over Gary Neville's face as he's asked to justify the selection of Paul Scholes in his own greatest ever five-a-side team. “Why Scholes?” He pauses, dumbfounded. “Have you never watched him play football?”
The Ginger Prince has been one of the most consistently brilliant players of Sir Alex Ferguson's reign and virtually unparalleled in his completeness. He won the Premier League 11 times, the Champions League twice and when United's stranglehold on English football was beginning to fade in 2012, it was Scholes who was drafted out of retirement to aid the cause.
Yet, on Sunday afternoon, his (second) retirement was more of an afterthought than the grand fanfare you might have expected. This great servant of Old Trafford, this great player period, went out with a whimper as pyrotechnics exploded around him in honour of Sir Alex – but you get the impression that it is exactly the way he would have wanted it to be, and exactly the way it has always been.
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His influence was as vast as his appetite to be in the limelight was non-existent. Scholes was the very antithesis of the modern footballer, totally unconcerned with his appearance or accolades. He simply played football.
He was the least flashy of United's golden generation, a spectrum of stars who, in the 1995-96 season, force-fed Alan Hansen a large slice of humble pie as his immortal phrase, “you can't win anything with kids”, was quashed so profoundly.
The Red Devils were at the forefront of the Premier League's transformation into a money-making machine; that young squad had the tricky, jinking wizardry of poster-boy Ryan Giggs down one wing, tearing opponents apart with consummate ease, and David Beckham on the opposite flank, with his boyish good looks and trademarkable set-pieces.
Scholes – small, quiet, timid even, ginger – sat, willingly, in their shadows. But he prospered in anonymity. In just his second full season, he scored 14 goals in all competitions as United went on to win the Premier League and FA Cup double. That tally was bettered only by Eric Cantona (19).
He let his football do the talking, and when he spoke, when he had the ball at his feet, everyone listened. Roy Keane may have been Sir Alex's mouthpiece on the pitch, the embodiment of the fighting spirit he installed at United, but Scholes was the player he would have wanted to be.
And the two were cut from the same cloth, allowing their successes on the pitch to speak for them, working diligently and meticulously on the training pitches. Just as the 71-year-old reinvented his squads time and time again, Scholes reinvented himself. The box-to-box goalscorer, the deep-lying playmaker, even, in occasional flashes of ill-discipline coupled with bone-crunching challenges, the midfield enforcer.
As the game sped up, Scholes slowed down, purposely. From hustling high up the pitch and arriving in the box late to leather a loose ball into the to corner, to becoming a metronomic, game-controlling passer from deep – that particular facet was still in evidence this season when he attempted a mind-boggling 148 passes against Tottenham in September.
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He may have hidden from the limelight, but he never shied away from glory. When his side needed something magical, he so often delivered. He was not just a scorer of great goals but important ones, none more so than against Barcelona in the 2008 Champions League semi-final. The Red Devils needed a goal and Scholes duly delivered in spectacular fashion, rifling a swerving effort into the top corner.
Scholes' understated brilliance has made him the ultimate “player's player”, on two counts. Not only was his ability so vast, and often so selfless, that he could elevate the quality and levels of those around him, but he has also been on the receiving end of near limitless plaudits from the people who really matter, who really know a diamond when they see one: his peers.
Everyone from Pele to Zinedine Zidane, Luis Figo to Cristiano Ronaldo, has lauded Scholes, but perhaps Barcelona's Xavi captured the midfielder best. “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.”
On reflection, Scholes was ahead of the curve. He inspired the players, Xavi & co., that England now look to as a benchmark of the right way to play football – yet the prototype was under our noses all along. Criminally shunted out to the left wing, would the Three Lions still be waiting for major international silverware if Scholes had been as respected by his own country as he was by the rest of the world?
Scholes was the greatest of things in the smallest of packages, and a player who shunned the normally inescapable trappings of the modern game despite the notoriety that his talent would otherwise have garnered him. He cared about football not celebrity, glory not fame, and we may never see his like again.
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