England fans will forever ponder how a so-called golden generation of sublime midfield talent never managed to fulfil its overt potential on the international scene. Gerrard, Lampard, Scholes. How were they to extract the best out of all three exceptional central talents in a single England midfield? For Sir Alex Ferguson, the answer was simple: play either one of them alongside Paul Scholes.
Sven Goran Eriksson took charge of The Three Lions in 2001, when Paul Scholes was 26, and at the peak of his abilities. He chose to stubbornly stick with a flat 4-4-2 formation, opting to leave Scholes marginalised, out on the left flank. Although Ferguson previously utilised Scholes on the left, it was not his preferred position, nor the role where his best football was produced.
Scholes attributed his disillusionment with international football down to the selfishness of certain England players, who he felt took advantage of the world stage to play for themselves rather than the team, likely in an effort to engineer a transfer to a top club. It was with some regret that England’s most naturally gifted player since Paul Gascoigne decided to retire from international football at 29, when he had so much more to give.
Steve McClaren and his successor, Fabio Capello, both attempted to coax him out of retirement, during their stints in charge of the England setup, and Scholes would eventually come out of retirement to lace up his boots once more, but it would be at 37-years-old and for Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United only; not England. Unsurprisingly, it was at Old Trafford, thirty minutes from his home, where he achieved immortal status.
A product of the infamous Manchester United youth academy, specifically the Class of ’92, a 19-year-old Scholes stormed onto the scene at Old Trafford with a brace on his September 1994 debut, in a 2-1 win against Port Vale in the League Cup. His composure and eye for goal was apparent from an early age, where he played as a centre-forward, and he managed to find the net again on his Premier League debut three days later, despite United slumping to a 3-2 loss to Ipswich Town at Portman Road.
Ferguson had noticed Scholes’ abundant technical ability from an early age. He was an introverted, shy youngster, yet stood out from the crowd on the pitch and let his football do the talking whenever his toes crossed the white line. The United boss begrudgingly admitted that he thought he was too small at the time to make it at the top level. He told his assistant, Jim Ryan, that “he’s got no chance” – a statement that has become something of a standing joke within the Old Trafford hierarchy, as Scholes’ ability massively outgrew his height, which only reached some five foot seven inches.
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Although he achieved immediate success in his debut outings, it wasn’t until the 1995/96 season that Scholes managed to break his way into the starting XI. With Mark Hughes leaving for Chelsea, and Eric Cantona serving a nine-month ban from football after his infamous kung-fu kick attack on a Crystal Palace fan, Scholes partnered Andy Cole upfront for the first two months of the campaign and bagged 14 goals in all competitions as Manchester United became the first English team to win the Double twice. He picked up his second Premier League medal the following season, as United finished comfortably ahead of Newcastle United for the second year running.
His height, or lack thereof, was proving somewhat troublesome – he lacked the physicality of the prevailing Premier League centre forward of the time – but he would soon get a chance to earn his place in the heart of the United midfield, a position that Scholes would go on to own at the club. After Roy Keane suffered a cruciate ligament injury in a clash with Leeds United’s Alf-Inge Haaland, during a dull 1-1 tie in September 1997 – the clash that would provide the motivation behind his vengeful attack on Haaland, in a Manchester derby four years later – Scholes was dropped into midfield to fill the gap.
Keane’s absence was significant as United went on to squander an 11-point lead at the top of the table to finish the 1997/98 season behind Arsenal and without a major title of any kind; only the second time in the 1990s that this occurred, such was United’s dominance. It was likely the extra motivation behind the following season’s mesmeric treble, where Scholes played an integral role.
Scholes took to his new central midfield role immediately and found the net 11 times in 51 outings in all competitions in United’s treble-winning 1998/99 season, with a particular knack for scoring at crucial moments. He scored the winner in United’s 2-0 win over Newcastle United in the FA Cup final with a superb first-time strike from outside the area with his weaker foot, and slotted one past Internazionale’s Pagliuca in Italy, to seal a UEFA Champions League semi-final tie against Juventus.
It is unfortunate that in arguably his most impressive individual season, Scholes would sit out the Champions League final alongside his captain Roy Keane after both players served suspensions for picking up one yellow card too many. “No celebrity bullshit, no self-promotion – an amazingly gifted player who remained an unaffected human being,” Keane later said about Scholes, which perhaps best captures the story of a local boy who achieved his dream of playing for his childhood club, togging out at Old Trafford for 20 successive seasons. His ultimate dream became a reality that campaign as Manchester United capped off the ‘90s with a scintillating treble – only the second-ever British team to achieve this feat; with Celtic having become the first way back in 1966/67.
The cult of Paul Scholes inside Manchester United would stem from his nickname on the training ground. He was anointed “Sat Nav” due to his impeccable passing and distribution skills, but more so for his ability to find any one of his teammates’ backsides from 40 yards away whenever they happened to be relieving themselves in the bushes. When Scholes came out of retirement, and featured in the last 30 minutes of United’s 3-2 win against Manchester City in their 2012 FA Cup third-round clash, he finished the game with 71 passes and a 97% completion rate. Not a bad return for a 37-year-old in his first game back.
“Dour, uncomplicated Lancashire man who has no time at all for the frivolities of life,” wrote Sir Alex Ferguson in the foreword of Scholes’ autobiography. Scholes admits that he was surprised by just how well Ferguson knew him. A rare breed of English player, Scholes was a highly intelligent footballer, who had a superlative ability to almost make the game look easier than easy, and his abilities drew praise from teammates and opponents alike.
Perhaps the greatest of tributes to Scholes comes from a handful of iconic graduates of Barcelona’s prestigious La Masia academy. Scholes’ Catalonian counterparts Xavi and Iniesta always took note of the Lancashire man’s magnificent passing ability and reading of the game, and Leo Messi expressed that at La Masia, he was often used as an example of how the game should be played by the youth coaches.
Scholes’ profile is made all the more enamouring when you consider his clear defensive shortcomings. He collected the fifth-most yellow cards in the Premier League — at 97 — and was booked another 32 times in the UEFA Champions League, surpassed only by Real Madrid’s pantomime villain Sergio Ramos, but in a rare interview with the BBC in 2011, upon the release of his book, Scholes amusingly maintains: “I was just getting people back.”
Eleven Premier League medals, three FA Cups and two Champions Leagues, including that historic Treble in 1998/99: Scholes’ mass of accolades speak for themselves. One of the greatest ever players to ply his trade in the Premier League, Paul Scholes’ name will remain forever etched into the hearts and minds of Manchester United supporters.
By Alan Condon @alan_condon