They say you should never meet your heroes, for therein lies only disappointment. Sage advice, no doubt. So, when I was asked to go and interview Paul Scholes for Republik of Mancunia, did I heed it? No. I cleared my diary and told everyone I knew, and even a few people I didn’t know.
The way you feel about some footballers can be difficult to put into words. They were a huge part of your childhood; worshipped; idolised; inspirational figures capable of the kind of footballing sorcery of which we mere mortals could only dream. These were the players we pretended to be in the playground and who brought us to our feet and made the hair on the backs of our necks stand on end on match days. Scholes was one of those heroes for an entire generation of Manchester United fans, myself included.
That’s when you’re a kid, though. As you get older, the way you feel about footballers changes. You no longer see only the good stuff. Your heroes retire and you realise these people are not deities after all. They’re just people. Gifted people, but just people nonetheless. They make mistakes, act like fools, let you down. Disappointingly human.
I’ve interviewed people before and I always get nervous. On this occasion, however, my nerves were extreme – all sweaty palms, jelly limbs and dry mouth. I exited the Hotel Football lift and introduced myself to Scholes’ people, spying the man himself and feeling a fresh wave of nerves and barely containable excitement wash over me. I was that kid again.
“I’m afraid you’re Paul’s last interview,” I was told. “He’s very tired.”
‘Great,’ I thought, expecting a grumpy, exhausted United legend, already known for his taciturnity, who didn’t want to be there, to provide me with monosyllabic answers through gritted teeth.
Paul finished his interview with the bloke before me and I introduced myself. If you haven’t been to the top floor of Hotel Football – ‘The Heavens,’ as they call it – it’s designed like a mini football pitch, complete with 5-aside goals and green carpet. There were a few footballs dotted about so, flying by the seat of my pants, in a desperate bid to ingratiate myself, I asked Paul if he’d like a few minutes’ break before his final interview – “I know you’ve had a long day, so if you fancy a kick-about for five minutes…”
“Yeah, go on then,” he replied. “Let’s have a quick game of crossbar challenge.”
So there I was. Playing crossbar challenge with Paul Scholes, Paul Scholes’ agent, a lad on work experience and the bloke who’d done the interview before me, on whom the surreal nature of this turn of events clearly wasn’t lost.
As I shaped up to take my turn, I suddenly regretted my decision not to wear my full kit, John Terry style. Still, despite my cumbersome size twelve boots, I came closest to hitting the bar. That’s right, I beat Paul Scholes in a game of crossbar challenge (although, as we sat down a few seconds later, spotting a ball by our table, he hit the bar with a nonchalant, no-look shot and my mind raced back to those tales of teammates relieving themselves on the training ground only to be hit on the back of the head by a Paul Scholes missile). Still, history will show that I beat him fair and square.
Whether it was the kick-about ice-breaker, or the thought of this being his final interview of the day, I needn’t have worried. Scholes was friendly and engaging. The twenty minute interview flew by and, though I’d prepared questions, it felt more like a conversation, albeit a conversation with one of the best footballers I’d ever seen.
There were so many interesting moments of real, natural honesty. When I asked him who was the best player he’d ever played with, for example, he replied “Ryan Giggs” without hesitation. I’d expected him to say Eric Cantona or Roy Keane or Cristiano Ronaldo and there was a fleeting moment when I wondered whether he was saying this because Giggs is his mate. But then he began enthusing about his mate’s gifts and the look of awe on his face spoke a thousand words.
“I played with some brilliant players – so many brilliant players – but Ryan was the one that could lift everything. You’d just give him the ball, especially on big European nights; he used to beat five or six men; used to get the crowd going. The longevity of his career, as well, was special, not just his quality but to take it to twenty-odd years.”
Scholes, remember, grew up playing alongside Giggs and he and his Class of ’92 co-stars all share a common trait – every one of them goes dewy-eyed when they talk about their Welsh teammate’s ability with the ball at his feet. Because he really was a special player. As I said to Scholes, Giggs, in his pomp, running at defenders, leaving them with, in the words of Sir Alex Ferguson, “twisted blood,” remains one of the most glorious sights from my lifetime watching United. He agreed.
That wasn’t all we agreed on. In this age of fake news and, in the world of football, fake quotes, I wanted to know whether Scholes had really described Michael Carrick as a ‘Rolls Royce’ of a footballer.
“Yeah, he is. He just cruises round the football pitch. He’s always in the right place, never gets outpaced, never gets flustered by anything, reads the game so well. He’s great to play with. A player you want next to you.”
High praise, indeed, and Scholes also thinks that United will have to find Carrick’s eventual replacement, as time on his glittering career closes in, from outside the club. Though I, for one, fear that such a player might not exist, Scholes already has a replacement in mind – “I think [Toni] Kroos would be ideal.” Either way, like Keane before him, Carrick will leave behind a huge pair of boots to fill and a gaping hole in United’s midfield.
We talked about his desire to coach in the future, as well as those “really enjoyable” few weeks when Giggs took over from David Moyes and we fans got to see Scholes, along with Nicky Butt, walk out of the tunnel at Old Trafford with him to manage a game. For many of us, it was a shivers-down-the-spine moment.
Stupidly, I left my question about that yellow card in Turin until last. “Do you still think about it?” I wondered.
“Only today because I’ve had ten people ask me about it.”
He said it half-jokingly, though clearly it still smarts. Even so, he remained more than happy to sign my eight year-old son’s copy of ‘The Class of ’92,’ which he intends to take into school for Show and Tell. A gent, even despite provocation.
They say you should never meet your heroes. But what do they know? Of course there’s a chance your heroes could turn out to be idiots, and you walk away feeling disillusioned and deflated. On the other hand, you could end up playing a game of crossbar challenge on the top floor of a hotel with them, then having a nice chat. It’s certainly something I’ll never forget.
Read part I of the interview with Scholes discussing trying to kick Ronaldinho for failing to sign for United and the best player he played with. Read part II where Scholes discusses his hopes for United to win trophies and not become like Arsenal. Read part III where Scholes talks about walking out at Old Trafford as a coach.