Paul Aaron Scholes, born 16 November 1974, is precisely one month younger than me. When the ginger maestro burst onto the scene in the mid-90s I quietly reveled in this fact; here was a guy at the heart of a new golden generation that was to dominate his profession for a decade. Fast forward almost 15 years – Portsmouth at Old Trafford last week – and Scholes stepped out for his 600th game in a United shirt, surely the last milestone before the curtain falls on a glittering career. Now the proximity of our birthdates is not such a good omen; It’s not nice to be reminded that you’re over the hill.
That Scholes deserves all the plaudits heaped on him is not in question. As is often noted, his quiet professionalism is in stark contrast to the celebrity-obsessed idiocy that afflicts most modern premiership players. But the passing of Schole’s golden generation is in danger of overshadowing a deeper problem at OT. When Scholes and co exit stage left, what’s the next act?
The opening game of United’s 1995/96 season – a 3-1 loss to Aston Villa – is chiefly remembered for Alan Hanson’s smug post match assertion that “you cannae win anything with kids.” United’s team that day included Scholes, David Beckham, Nicky Butt and the Neville brothers, players that were to lead United to unparalleled success later that decade.
This generation reached its pinnacle in the 1999 treble winning season. The team at this point featured arguably English football’s best ever midfield quartet: Giggs, Scholes, Keane, Beckham. This midfield was famously disrupted by the arrival of Veron (who managed one decent game for United in three years) and the exit of Beckham (who had become more interested in haircuts by this point). What followed was a series of rubbish signings (Djemba Djemba, Kleberson etc.) and good ones (Rooney, Ronaldo) but a new homegrown generation never materialised. This was never more evident than in the signings of Anderson and Nani, bought as long-term replacements for Scholes and Giggs, respectively.
It’s no surprise that the young, dynamic team that emerged in the mid-90s is held in such high regard at the club given the legacy of the Busby Babes, but both sides are the exception to United’s history, not the rule. Virtually the whole of the 70s and 80s was spent buying established players and it’s been pretty much the same since the treble winning team was broken up. The harsh truth is that United’s constant talk of investing in youth and nurturing young talent is mostly bollocks. For every Macheda that comes along, there’s a million Chris Eagles who are shipped off to the lower leagues and never heard of again.
As he proved with his pinpoint pass to set-up Carrick’s goal against Portsmouth in his 600th game, Scholes has his place in the current team on merit rather than sentiment. But OT will be awash with sentimentality as his golden generation retires over the next year or so, and that’s no good thing for a club that has built its success on a ruthlessness that keeps it moving forward at all costs.
This sentimentality will be evident again tonight when Giggs is expected to notch up an unprecedented 800th appearance for the club. As with Scholes, the newly-crowned player of the year deserves his swansong. But there’s already some silly talk of United retiring Gigg’s number 11 shirt; a proposal seemingly dreamt up by some United suit with no knowledge of the club’s history prior to 1991 (Norman Whiteside and George Best are just two legends to have worn the shirt before him).
So, let the golden generation bow out gracefully, but let’s now concentrate on developing a new one rather than celebrating an old one. I’m sure both Scholes and Giggs would agree.