He was not, as some tributes suggested, the complete midfielder. There were things he struggled with. As was well documented, he couldn’t really tackle. He rarely beat a man for pace. He didn’t quite have the stamina of other midfield greats. For all this, when I was recently informed that I had been uttering the words, ‘Paul Scholes was better’ in my sleep, I knew instantly that, whoever my advisory had heralded, I was probably correct. The scrawny, asthmatic, ginger lad with the eye problems was the finest English player of the past two decades. He was more super human than superhuman, his flaws only adding to the sense of wonder. He had no peers.
Scholes was, in a very real sense, our Paul. He felt like a part of the family, the cheeky younger brother, perhaps, with the guilty grin after he’d been caught misbehaving. If the departure of Sir Alex Ferguson was heralded as signalling the demise of a certain sort of football man, the exit of Scholes was another.
One of the most moving tributes I read after the untimely passing of a genius last week was that, ‘we knew everything about Tony Soprano and nothing about James Gandolfini. That is called great acting.’ It was the same with Scholes and football. Though wealth and fame were inevitable, he sought neither. The game was the thing in and of itself. He never had an agent because he didn’t need one. The Salinger of Salford was a private man whose only wish was to play football. If he’d had the personality of Beckham, he might now be considered in the pantheon of the immortals. His contemporaries are in little doubt about his abilities.
Fabregas called him ‘the best player in the Premier League’, Zidane described him as his ‘toughest opponent’ and Xavi said he was ‘the best central midfielder of the last 20 years’. He is referred to as the footballer’s footballer in much the same way as Larry David is labelled the comedian’s comedian – essentially the best.
He was not nicknamed ‘Sat-Nav’ for nothing. Ben Foster, somewhat surprisingly, considers Scholes his football hero. His reasoning makes for a wonderful tale:
‘It’s my very first session for Manchester United and the lads are practising their passing. I just watched them, for a minute in between my own drills. They were hitting diagonals, 40-50 yards.
Someone has rolled this ball into Scholesy. It’s bounced just before he could make contact – a really nasty bounce. He’s altered his body shape in the blink of an eye and just smashed this ball. It did not wobble in the air. It went like a bullet, four feet off the ground for 50 yards and Giggsy or whoever just did not move. They chested it down and off they went.
I said: ‘Bloody hell…did you see that?’ to the goalkeeping coach at the time who was Tony Coton. He had his back to what was going on. He couldn’t have seen what had happened. No way.
He didn’t turn around. He just went: ‘That was Scholesy, wasn’t it?’
Paul Scholes is a football genius.’
The plaudits aren’t just contemporaries either. Sir Bobby Charlton, generally considered the club’s greatest ever player, offered an alternative number one in his autobiography:
‘I have no hesitation in putting a name to the embodiment of all that I think is best about football. It’s Paul Scholes. Many great players have worn the shirt of Manchester United. Players I worshipped, then lost with my youth in Munich. Players like Denis Law and George Best who I enjoyed so much as teammates and now, finally, players I have watched closely in the Alex Ferguson era. And in so many ways Scholes is my favourite.’
Some praise. And what of the man widely considered to be the greatest ever to have kicked a pig’s bladder around a patch of grass? Pele keeps it brief and to the point:
‘If he was playing with me, I would score so many more.’
Who does the man himself deem his own favourite player, though? He was asked in 2002, on the eve of England’s clash with Argentina.
‘Frankie Bunn. He scored six goals in a League Cup tie against Scarborough once.’
In opting for an Oldham player, someone he watched as a boy, Scholes displayed his wry sense of humour. But, more than this, he showed how singularly unaffected he was by the circus of modern football. He named Bunn because he was his hero as a child and, all those years later, he’d hardly changed a bit.
To be as good at anything as Paul Scholes was at football would be a rare blessing. He had ability in the way beautiful people have beauty or funny people have funny. It was simply part of him. There have been other excellent English players in the modern era but, in truth, none come close to matching his innate gifts. The goals, the passes, the movement, it was second nature to Scholes. Everything he did on the pitch seemed like a reflex, akin to sneezing for the rest of us mere mortals.
It was a genuine privilege to watch the man play for our club over the years. His second and final retirement came, rather aptly, slightly late. His final season was a personal disappointment if not a collective one. Scholes could not disguise his joy at the fact that Ferguson, Mourinho, Moyes and Rooney dominated the back pages on his final week as a professional. His exit strategy could not have been perfectly executed if it had been one of his trademark passes.
The Salford lad with the red hair and the red shirt will never play for United again. It’s hard to believe. Like Ferguson’s farewell, the end of a romance or anything else that matters in this strange world, keep in mind the wise words of Dr. Seuss. When he wasn’t banging on about cats in hats, the bloke had some useful advice.
‘Don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened.’
Watch footage of him and smile. Football, like life, is just a series of moments. And Scholesy provided us with some of the best ones.