Following their recent retirements, fans and the media alike spent hours discussing who was better – Frank Lampard or Steven Gerrard? As this familiar debate continued to take place, the greatest English midfielder of his generation was – as he had often been during his international career – pushed to one side and ignored. Paul Scholes never sought the limelight. Whilst he could do the extraordinary, the true extent of his genius was not revealed in highlight packages or perhaps on TV at all. Ask anyone who saw Scholes play live and in his prime – they will tell you he was peerless. Always in space, never missing a pass – his grinding down of opposition sides was one of the key reasons United scored so many late goals. Even watching him warm up was a joy. The Secret Footballer (widely believed to be former Reading striker Dave Kitson) extolled ‘the first time I saw Scholes was the first time I really understood football … his warm up was the most flawless display of passing I’ve ever seen.’ Scholes is not short of admirers. Thierry Henry considers him the greatest player in Premier League history and he is frequently cited as an inspiration at Barcelona’s legendary La Masia academy. Xavi summarised the global admiration for Scholes observing ‘he’s spectacular, he has it all, the last pass, goals, he’s strong, he doesn’t lose the ball, vision… players love him.’ In the era of the failed ‘golden generation’, the under-appreciated Scholes represented the antithesis of the typical English player. His composure on the ball enabled him to dictate the game with a continental style equal to that of Andrea Pirlo. Even in his final season Scholes’ passing percentage (92%) was higher than Gerrard’s (86%), Lampard’s (82%) and even Pirlo’s (87%.) Football is a possession game and nobody was better at retaining it than Paul Scholes.
Critics of Scholes would question his importance to the Manchester United side but to make this argument is to misunderstand football itself. Sir Alex Ferguson stated that Scholes was one of only four world class players he managed during his twenty-seven years at United and throughout his time at the club Scholes was pivotal to the club’s extraordinary success. Scholes’ breakthrough campaign in 1995-1996 saw him score fourteen goals – the first of eight times in which he scored double figures in a season – as Manchester United won the double. He was firmly established as a key man by the time United won the treble in 1998-1999; scoring in the final of the FA Cup and netting a crucial away goal in the UEFA Champions League Quarter Final against Inter Milan. After playing a large part in this historic feat, Scholes went from strength to strength. By the mid-2000s he was in his prime and was nominated for the FIFA World 11 twice in three seasons. He was often robbed of awards by undiscerning adjudicators, never more so than he was only shortlisted for the Premier League Player of the Season in 2006-07. That season he was unplayable – most memorably in a talismanic performance against Blackburn where his exquisite equaliser inspired United to win 4-1 having trailed 1-0. Scholes’ had a knack of scoring spectacular goals. His stunning first time volleys against Bradford (2000) and Aston Villa (2006) are amongst the best in Premier League history whilst his swerving thunderbolt against Barcelona in the Champions League Semi Final (2008) was the goal that took him to his second final – and ultimately a second European title. Following his tenth Premier League triumph, Scholes retired as the most decorated English footballer of all time with twenty-four trophies to his name – more than Gerrard and Lampard combined. If the fullest trophy cabinet in English footballing history doesn’t make you a legend – what does?
Scholes was the ticking heartbeat of Ferguson’s side
Scholes’ importance to Manchester United was proven by his dramatic comeback from retirement. Following two successive losses and an injury crisis, Ferguson asked Scholes to return to the United team. His impact was instant. Coming off the bench against Manchester City in his first game back Scholes’ trademark composure helped United to see out the win. Watching that game was the first time I appreciated how good Scholes really was. Despite leading, United were losing control of the game and had been disjointed and sloppy in possession. Scholes changed all of that in a heartbeat. His very presence appeared calming, as soon as he stepped onto the pitch United were a much, much better side. Aged thirty-seven and playing his first competitive game of football for nine months he changed the match in a way very few players could. Scoring in his start back continued a comeback so successful he stayed for another season and continued to perform at the highest level just eighteen months shy of his fortieth birthday. He retired for good after winning an eleventh Premier League title (his twenty-fifth career honour) and was sorely missed at Old Trafford. The season after Gerrard left Liverpool they scored just two points less than the previous campaign, whilst Chelsea picked up five points more and won the league after Lampard’s departure. Scholes’ exit had more profound consequences. Without him the champions imploded, finishing seventh with twenty-five points less than in Scholes’ last season. During his twenty seasons at the club, Scholes never failed to finish in the top four with United; in the three seasons since his retirement they have missed out twice. You don’t realise how important someone is until they’re not there anymore.
Paul Scholes’ footballing career was legendary. Loyal to the very end, he was an inspired young man who became an inspiration. Sven Goran Eriksson’s cowardice in refusing to drop Lampard and Gerrard (or play a five-man midfield) led to his premature international retirement – which the pleading of three of Eriksson’s successors could not overturn. But England’s loss was United’s gain. Scholes was the ticking heartbeat of Ferguson’s side – without his strong and serene presence they were a far inferior team. His influence on the pitch – and off it, where he went out of his way to help young players – took the most dominant team in the history of English football to another level. There are so many gushing quotes from footballing icons we could end on but this story from Cristiano Ronaldo says it all. ‘Scholes took the ball and pointed to a tree which was about 50m from where we were standing. He said, I’m going to hit it in one shot. He kicked and hit the tree. He asked me to do the same; I kicked about 10 times, but still couldn’t hit it, with that accuracy. He smiled and left.’ Legend.