Paul Scholes is arguably the most naturally gifted English midfielder since Paul Gascoigne, but his time at the top was marred by the circumstances surrounding his early international retirement, as well as his tendency to shy away from the public eye. It seems that a few of us may have forgotten the exact reasons he gave at the time for leaving the Three Lions, instead focusing on his missed opportunities with the national side. Regardless, his consistency is what sets him apart from from Gascoigne, and it didn’t stop him from dominating European football during his two spells at Manchester United.
He amassed 11 league titles in addition to two Champions League wins and numerous other accolades and trophies along the way. Paul Scholes is the ultimate players’ player. He may not have won many individual awards, but everyone from Zinedine Zidane to Xavi paid respect to his talents over the years. He gained the nickname ‘Sat-Nav’ thanks to his unerring ability to find his team-mates with the ball, and he retired as a champion. But it wasn’t all plain sailing for one of the best players of his generation; a man criminally undervalued during his time at the top.
A young Scholes can be seen in photos of the famous Class of ‘92 along with David Beckham, Nicky Butt, Gary Neville and the rest of the prodigies that would go on to take the league by storm. His trademark ginger hair turned out to be just one of the things that made him stand out from the others that made it big.
At five feet seven inches he was never going to be an imposing player, but that doesn’t matter if you have outstanding technique, a wicked shot and the vision to pick apart even the tightest defences in Europe. He suffers from asthma and was never going to be able to replicate the box-to-box movement of Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard in their pomp, but he was arguably a better player overall because he worked past these deficiencies to become one of the global masters in his position.
His debut came in the 1994 League Cup as he scored a brace against Port Vale in a 2-1 win. He made his first league appearance just three days later in a loss to Ipswich, but he had cemented his position in the first team, making 17 appearances in total during his maiden year many as a striker or just behind the number 9.
A year later, Scholes and his cohorts from the Class of ‘92 were doing their best to disprove Alan Hansen’s adage that you could never win anything with kids. The squad blew away their competition in the league with Scholes the architect as he slotted in next to the battle-hardened Roy Keane to form one of the most dangerous midfield partnerships in English football history.
He won his third Premier League title by 1999 after wrestling it back from a resurgent Arsenal under Arsène Wenger. The squad was starting to completely dominate the domestic league, while picking up numerous cups along the way. It was also the year he first won the Champions League, though he lifted the trophy in a suit after being banned during the semi-final against Juventus for amassing too many yellow cards along the way. Indeed, he said afterwards that he never felt like he earned the medal he has since left hidden in a drawer.
As with most elite squads, they wrote their way into history after facing near impossible odds, and though Scholes may have missed out on playing in the final, he had another chance to rectify his absence nearly a decade later.
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At just 29, he ended his career with the England team, stating that although he didn’t take the decision lightly he had been considering retiring from international football for a while. “I started my England career in 1997 and have enjoyed seven years of great football, playing in the best competitions, with some of the best players, under the best managers. Euro 2004 was fantastic but afterwards I felt the time was right for myself and my family to make it my last England appearance.”
The one key word that most people tend to forget is “family”.
He had the combined talents of Gerrard and Lampard hot on his heels, while Sir Alex Ferguson agreed that family ties were the underlying reason for his departure from England. As the years went by, it came to be that people thought he made his choice to prolong his career in Manchester, in the same way Alan Shearer committed his long-term future to Newcastle United following his shock retirement after Euro 2000.
There was also a sense that he was frustrated at being asked to play on the left to accommodate the arrival of Lampard – although Scholes later claimed he had no problem in this respect since he sometimes played in a similar role for his club. In any case, England had lost their most inspirational midfielder – though, like Lampard and Gerrard, he struggled to replicate his world-class form on the international stage – and one that continued to win plaudits from his fellow professionals as he grew into his most famous role, pulling the strings and setting the tempo from midfield for Manchester United.
Under the tutelage of Sir Alex Ferguson, Scholes continued to win titles, and he had adapted his game to become one of the best deep-lying playmakers of modern times. He had curbed his earlier attacking instincts and though the goals were becoming increasingly rare, play continued to go through him as he recycled and retained the ball at incredible rates. His cross-field pass is as good as anyone in European history.
Every player tends to expect diminishing returns as they reach their latter years but Ferguson was known for his ability to manage both Scholes and Ryan Giggs effectively, and they eventually got their just desserts. In 2008, it was finally time to make amends in the Champions League.
English football had dominated Europe for the previous few years and Manchester United faced off against a Chelsea side that was still recovering from the fallout of the first dismissal of José Mourinho. Scholes was finally free to play in the final, and realised his dream after Nicolas Anelka (not John Terry) missed the final penalty in a tense shootout. Even Scholes couldn’t downplay his contribution to the cause this time, coming off after 87 action packed minutes. This time he celebrated in his kit with his team-mates.
In 2010, Scholes made a decision that he later came to regret, and one that further tainted his reputation within the England setup and amongst some fans. When called upon to aide his international team-mates at the 2010 World Cup, he turned down Fabio Capello’s offer, stating: “If they’d asked me earlier I probably would have accepted. But there are players in the squad who have spent nearly two years flying all around the world helping England qualify for the World Cup whereas I haven’t been involved for a long time.”
Of course, it tends to be remembered differently by sections of the public, who took it to mean that he was unimpressed at being asked at the last minute, like some kind of afterthought. The only one who knows for sure is the player himself; he later admitted that he couldn’t deal with the thought of being away from his family.
When the 2010-11 season was over, it seemed like it could be time for Scholes to hang up his boots. He called an end to a glittering career in May due to a fear that he just couldn’t impose himself on the game in the same way he had become accustomed to, and joined the coaching staff at the Red Devils. As an injury-ravaged Manchester United struggled for form after Christmas the following year, Scholes once again took up the mantle as he signed a short-term deal with the club at the age of 36. It says everything that a man of Ferguson’s experience and stubbornness reverted back to an ageing Scholes to solve his midfield issues.
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In his first game back, an FA Cup tie against Manchester City, he finished with a 97 percent pass completion rate from 71 attempts. It was like his had never been away, such was his natural talent. He stayed for one more year as United ended up winning the league and he continued to pull the strings during his last hurrah. Though he did begin to suffer from a lack of mobility and problems with his vision, it didn’t affect his role as a regista for the team as long as he wasn’t overrun by the opposition pressing him.
It seemed that Scholes was finally open to an England return at the end of the season but this time there was no call up for the veteran playmaker ahead of the 2012 Euros. In hindsight, Roy Hodgson was probably wrong not to pay attention to the pass completion rate that Scholes brought to the fore. (As a side note, Harry Redknapp said he would have loved to have taken him to the Euros if he was chosen as the England manager). Perhaps it’s a case of what could have been. In the end, it was too late to reconcile his differences with the Three Lions.
After giving more than enough during his years serving in the engine room at Old Trafford, he finally called time on his playing career in 2013. Eleven league trophies represent an incredible haul, one that few players will ever replicate. He signed a deal with BT Sport in 2015 to join their ever-expanding punditry team, and he hasn’t let himself down so far.
Despite his retiring persona, he’s been vocal enough in a job that doesn’t always demand it from ex-pros. It reinforces the idea that he was camera-shy as a player due in part to his high professionalism – and lazy if you believe Roy Keane – as he focused solely on his football. He has discussed a move into management in the past; for now he’s content to own a 10 percent stake in Salford City.
So how should we remember the legacy of the midfield prince? It’s true that a nation expects, but can we really blame a man for putting his family first and not wanting to intrude on a tournament that he felt he had no right to play in? He kept his silence over the years – indeed there was no obligation to play for a national side that he felt had individuals who would only play for themselves instead of the team, in a position that didn’t really play to his strengths.
He never won a Ballon d’Or and staggeringly only featured in the PFA Team of the Year twice, despite his abundance of titles. Was he underrated and unappreciated outside of the red half of Manchester, or was he outshone by the Ronaldos and Beckhams who tend to catch the eye a little easier? If it was just about skill and respect of his peers, Scholes would be top of the class in the school of English midfielders.
Perhaps it’s more of a cultural issue as many still tend to favour fitness over guile and power over technique. Putting his international career to the side, which is easy enough to do considering his illustrious club record, Scholes was versatile, intelligent and a true professional over the years. Maybe he was a little too professional in 2010 at turning down the chance to play at the World Cup.
He should be regarded not just as a Manchester United legend but one of the greatest English players of all time. The respect from his peers is rightly deserved, but there’s still a feeling that he failed to fulfil his potential, despite his proficiency and consistency in multiple positions and roles for the team.
His fellow professionals regard him as one of the greatest in the game, so why should he worry about the people who don’t seem to appreciate his career? He never seemed to want the attention in the first place.
By James Milin-Ashmore. Follow @jamoashmore