So the rumours were true and Paul Scholes’ retirement is on hiatus for the season’s conclusion. The former-cum-current Manchester United midfielder’s 31 minute cameo in the FA Cup derby on Sunday concluded a week’s fevered speculation. Indeed, with United’s midfield depleted by injuries to Tom Cleverley and Darren Fletcher Scholes’ turnabout comes at an opitune time.
But as the transfer window opens, does the 36-year-old’s return simply whitewash a wider problem? One that has been known for at least two years: United’s midfield is desperately short of genuine class.
Not that Scholes’ return is unwelcome for supporters of course. The player, given an emotional farewell during a pre-season testimonial against New York Cosmos, is an enduring hero for a generation of United supporters. He is, after all, one of the finest midfielders of his age, lauded by peers, and has played nearly 700 games for the Reds
But the truth in Scholes’ return is also a stark reminder of United’s deficiencies. Had Sir Alex Ferguson been afforded the funds to buy in additional midfield quality last summer the Scot would, quite obviously, be less in need of the veteran’s services.
Yet, says Ferguson, it was the player and not staff that instigated Scholes’ return this week, with the squad told – according to Wayne Rooney – just minutes before United kicked off against Manchester City at Eastlands on Sunday.
“He came to see me and said he wanted to come back, he was missing it too much,” United manager Ferguson said.
“There were no negatives as far as I’m concerned. The players were fantastic about it, the fans I’m sure will be happy and I’m happy. The last few weeks, Paul has been training very hard with the reserves and doing a lot of work in the gym. He came to see me and said ‘I regret retiring’.
“There are no negatives for me. The players have been delighted. I am delighted. The fans are delighted. The last few weeks he has been stepping up his training and been taking part in our training sessions during the week. It is a terrific addition to our squad at a very important part of our season.
“It’s fantastic that Paul has made this decision. It’s always sad to see great players end their careers, but especially so when they do it early. But he has kept himself in great shape and I always felt that he had another season in him. It’s terrific to have him back.”
Indeed, in 30 minutes against City Scholes passed the ball more than any home team player did in the full 90; a reminder of the player’s enduring quality on the ball. On 71 occasions the flamed-haired midfielder passed long and short to colleagues in familiar fashion. Once, as a reminder of a time long now gone, Scholes strode up to the opposition penalty area and lashed in a shot from 25 yards. Vintage. Almost.
Yet, in modern football parlance, Scholes’ legs have gone; the player was blowing hard by the end, and not just because of eight months on the sidelines. The midfielder’s inability to physically compete in a two-man midfield had become obvious by the time the boots were hung up last May. It was the player, not manager, who deemed last summer the right time to go, with Scholes unable to influence the biggest games in the fashion he had become accustomed to over a plaudit-laden 20 year career at the very top. If Scholes is to contribute this season it will be in half-hour bursts from the bench or within the safety of a three-man midfield. Possibly both.
In this there is a risk that Scholes’ return is simply obfuscation of the real issue. Worse, that the player is making a comeback for selfish reasons, while the manager, so desperately short of quality, will take anything that comes his way. “I’ve been pretty clear since I stopped playing that I miss it,” said Scholes on Sunday. It is a missive that, to borrow from another sport, so many boxers will recognise. Nobody wants see Scholes to fight against the dying of the light.
That is not to say Scholes cannot add something to United’s campaign, such is the paucity of quality available. And, of course, the plaudits came from his team-mates on Sunday. That says much for the respect Scholes has garnered over the years.
“Seeing him in the dressing room just gave me a lift straight away,” said striker Danny Welbeck.
“Before the game he was on the bench and everyone knows what Paul Scholes can do. He just dictates the gameplay and it is fantastic to have him back. It was a great day overall and everybody was happy to get through it and I’m delighted for the whole club and the fans as well.”
Indeed, Welbeck hits the positive tone echoed by other members of Ferguson’s team. Scholes is rightly held in awe by his once former, now current, team-mates. United’s squad loses nothing with Scholes’ return, and the veteran is unlikely to force, say, Cleverley to the sidelines when the younger man regains full fitness.
But there is also a collective cognitive dissonance amid the euphoria. Quality counts. Not that displayed in the past, but that offered today. Scholes has a great future behind him. There is a truism at work: the player cannot and will not make a title-winning difference on his own.
In this there is also a question to answer. Has Scholes returned to underpin the genuine strength and quality already present; or is a United legend back, desperately seeking a temporary fix a potentially terminal problem, a sticking plaster for a near-fatal wound?