There was little fanfare from the maestro on Wednesday; it would, in all honesty, be more surprising if Paul Scholes actually knew the significance of the date: 23 January, 1992. Remember it, for these moments come by but once in a lifetime – two decades on from Scholes inking a signature on his first professional contract with Manchester United, alongside David Beckham, Nicky Butt, and Gary Neville, the midfielder is still making a mark at Old Trafford.
The little ginger kid with magic in his feet, who’d rather disappear into the shadows than listen to the inevitable plaudits on another anniversary. No celebrity for Scholes; no VIP restaurants, overpriced nightclubs, billboards or TV adverts; no post-match interviews with flowing man-of the-match-champagne; none of the hyperbolic media, nor the lingerie models hanging off his arms and on his every word. To Scholes everything bar playing has always been bullshit.
Instead there have been goals. Lots of them. And quality almost without peer in any midfielder of his generation. The flicks, tricks, 60-yard passes to feet. The 25-yard volleys, flying headers and ever-so-late tackles. The time and space on the ball that is such a rare commodity in modern football.
It has been 20 years of joy for those following. Not solely for the success that Scholes has been part of at Manchester United, but the unique brand of entertainment he fostered too. In 20 years’ time, 50 surely, Scholes will be remembered as one of the United greats. Player or not next season, United should never let this gem go.
After all, the reverence shows no bounds at Old Trafford – supporters, players, management.
Yet, remarkably, Scholes is not appreciated in the same way in the country – the cost of playing for the nation’s biggest club. Scholes played more than 60 times for England as well; it would have been more than a 100 but for Sven Goran Eriksson’s negligent abuse of the midfielder’s role. Ironic, perhaps, that a Swede should sum up the English reticence towards the technically gifted that the Scot Ferguson has always embraced.
“If he was Spanish,” said Barcelona’s maestro Xavi Hernández, “maybe he would have been valued more.” Had Scholes’ birth come in Salamanca not Salford he would surely have been nominated for the game’s greatest personal honours.
Either way, Scholes is unlikely to look back with any regret.
The midfielder has always been valued by his fellow pros though; from Zinedine Zidane, to Pélé, always a players’ player. No more so than Andreas Iniesta, Lionel Messi and Xavi, who on the conclusion of Barcelona’s victory over United at Wembley in 2011 sought out the wee man. Scholes took home the match ball; the opponents his shirt.
After all, Scholes has always been the embodiment of the United spirit that has long been ebbing away from the game. There is unlikely to be another quite like him.
Yet, here is a player who chose not to leverage his status as United’s finest – Scholes has never been Old Trafford’s highest earner, nor anything more than a reluctant participant in the marketing machine.
Like all the greats there is an enigma to Scholes too. The ‘dark side’, as Arsène Wenger so crudely put it. “A dirty little git,” Scholes’ former colleague Butt once said. The kid with asthma who conquered the world owed no little part to his steely resolve. It has served United well through 715 pre and post-retirement games for Sir Alex Ferguson’s side.
Of the cohort only Beckham is still playing, although the midfielder’s future is yet to be decided after leaving LA Galaxy in November. One more mega contract surely awaits in a career that is now more advertiser’s tool than playing resource.
Meanwhile, Butt finished his career abroad, playing three times for South China in winter 2010/11. An ignominious end. At least Neville retired into punditry with Sky TV at just the right time.
In that Scholes stands peerless.
Yet, it is likely to be Scholes’ last season at Old Trafford, before he slips off into retirement for a second time and, presumably, into another coaching role in Ferguson’s staff. The Scot will waste not more than 700 games experience even if a brief sojourn into coaching United’s kids last season brought Scholes more frustration than satisfaction.
Retirement may not have worked for the 38-year-old first time round, but, in the modern parlance, the legs have certainly now gone. Increasingly on the periphery, Scholes has started just nine games in all competitions this season – as many as the perpetually injured Anderson.
None of that will distract from an admirable comeback and a celebrated career. Now more than two decades as the professional’s professional.
Scholes in Numbers
715 appearances for United
155 goals scored
66 caps for England
10 Premier League titles
5 Community Shields
3 FA Cups
2 League Cups
2 European Cups
1 Intercontinental Cup
1 FIFA Club World Cup
On Scholes’ career
“He is the best midfielder of his generation. I would have loved to have played alongside him.” – Pep Guardiola
“In the last 15 to 20 years the best central midfielder that I have seen – the most complete – is Scholes. If he had been Spanish then maybe he would have been valued more.” – Xavi Hernandez
“I tell anyone who asks me – Scholes is the best English player.” – Laurent Blanc
“An amazingly gifted player who remained an unaffected human being.” – Roy Keane
“The best? Without any doubt it has to be Paul Scholes. He knows how to do everything, and he is the one who directs the way his team plays. On top of that, he has indestructible mental strength.” – Thierry Henry
“There isn’t a player of his mould anywhere else in the world.” – Glenn Hoddle
“If you ask footballers to pick out the player they most admire, so many of them will pick Paul Scholes. He’s the most consistent and naturally gifted player we’ve had for a long, long time.” – Alan Shearer
“Scholes is one of the most complete footballers I’ve ever seen. His one-touch play is phenomenal. Whenever I have played against him, I never felt I could get close to him.” – Eidur Gudjohnsen
“Every one of us is just trying to become as good as him. Everyone can learn from Paul Scholes. I’m not the best, Paul
Scholes is.” – Edgar Davids
“He is the one whose level I aspire to. He is the best player in the Premier League.” – Cesc Fabregas
“The player in the Premiership I admire most? Easy – Scholes.” – Patrick Vieira
“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’.” -Thierry Henry
“He’s almost untouchable in what he does. I never tire of watching him play. You rarely come across the complete footballer, but Scholes is as close to it as you can get. One of my regrets is that the opportunity to play alongside him never presented itself during my career.” – Zinedine Zidane
“Paul Scholes would have been one of my first choices for putting together a great team – that goes to show how highly I have always rated him.” – Marcello Lippi
“Good enough to play for Brazil. I love to watch Scholes, to see him pass, the boy with the red hair and the red shirt.” – Socrates
“I’m saddened because I think we as spectators, not only in this country but right through out Europe and the rest of the world, will be missing one hell of a footballer.” – Ray Wilkins
“Paul Scholes is my favourite player. He epitomises the spirit of Manchester United and everything that is good about football.” – Sir Bobby Charlton
“Without question, I think Paul Scholes is the best player in England. He’s got the best skills, the best brain. No one can match him.” – Sir Alex Ferguson