Exit Paul Scholes

Farewell to a ginger genius

June 7, 2011
By Daniel Harris
(Archive)

Like the power of love, greatness in football - and team sports in general - is a curious thing. Not measurable in championships won, goals scored or tackles made, it's tempting to conclude that if you even have to think about it, the person in question definitely hasn't attained it.

Daniel Harris' bookcase pays tributes to rock's legends, and Paul Scholes
GettyImagesDaniel Harris' bookcase pays tributes to rock's legends, and Paul Scholes

Generally, it's not that tricky - in my United-watching career, the pantheon comprises, in chronological order, Robson, Cantona, Schmeichel, Keane, van Nistelrooy and Ronaldo. Sitting just outside is Paul Scholes, though if we were talking favourites, his menschlichkeit would have him firmly ensconced, and his is the only likeness to adorn my mantelpiece (rescued from a Tel Aviv thrift shop - I let Gary Neville stay there, in a fit of Glazer-related pique).

The distinction - in my mind at least - is that the others transcended games with almost alarming consistency, often the sole factor in eventuating a desired outcome. An exacting standard, and so it should be, though perhaps it's just a reflection of the English game, the qualities embodied by Keane and Robson more significant in that context, and the others in the list either forwards scoring goals, or Schmeichel preventing them.

But unlike those others, Scholes was not always an automatic choice. In 1998-99, he started none of the four games against Arsenal, nor the crucial encounters in Milan or Turin; not something that ever happened to any other member of that midfield. There was an alternative to him in Nicky Butt, who offered a different option against teams demanding special consideration, but even so, it's worthy of note. (Aside: in Prestwich, there is a street called Scholes Lane, off which you will find Butt Hill Road. This gives me an inordinate amount of pleasure).

Part of me feels that at this point, I should self-righteously tell myself to shut up and just enjoy him for what he was. But I'm as determined to find an objective way of asserting his greatness as I am to argue with myself, so here goes:

Paul Scholes is a tough bastard. This is important because football is a contact sport, and despite his stature and skill, no one so much as contemplated kicking him out of a game.

Paul Scholes is a genius. He's able to see things that others can't, exploit them at moments of the highest pressure, and also altered our conception of the possible, via the inside-out pass. For those with no idea what I'm on about, imagine him in the middle of the pitch, ball at his right foot, preparing to hit it long. The natural angle insists that he go towards the left wing, but Scholes is able to hit across the ball so that it lasers the other way, despite the apparent stipulation of his body position; the most obvious comparison is the backhanded tennis shot made famous by Boris Becker.

Paul Scholes has supplied signature moments. I'm not sure whether I rate this as a criterion - Roy Keane, for example, can't list too many of those, though I suppose that's because he turned them into games and seasons - but still. In consecutive European Cup semis (2007 and 2008), Scholes performed breathtaking feats, dominating the opening period of the final that followed the second and prompting United's goal with typical wizardry. Factor in as many more key goals and assists as you can be bothered to list - the effective title clincher of 2003 at Tottenham and a Treble defender against Arsenal in the FA Cup semi-final of 2004 stand out - and there's some more evidence for you.

Paul Scholes: Never quite dominant, but quite often brilliant
GettyImagesPaul Scholes: Never quite dominant, but quite often brilliant

Paul Scholes is lauded by his peers, both teammates and opponents, as the finest player they've ever encountered. Ordinarily, I'd bristle at the mere suggestion that Rio Ferdinand - who identifies Park and Carrick as other "players' players" - notices subtleties that elude me, but it's not just him. Those who've competed with and against the very best, and clearly spent time thinking about the game can't all be wrong in rhapsodising his ability to consistently dictate what happens.

The difficult things that looked easy were made to look easy, the difficult things that looked difficult equally so. And alongside him, it's easy for others to excel: Ferdinand commented that Scholes' passes "tell you where to go", and Peter Schmeichel asserted that he has "the highest bottom level" he's ever seen. So though he rarely overcame other teams alone, without him many fewer would've been defeated, and how many of those succumbed to exhaustion after 90 minutes spent fruitlessly seeking him?

You might tritely categorise his strengths as technique and strategy - non-coincidentally, the two most significant aspects of the game. Scholes could control, pass and propel a football with power or finesse, using either foot, or head, and had an instinctive appreciation of when to apply each, and how best to use space.

Or in other words, he was an absolute and indisputable master of the game; what else is there to say?


Daniel Harris was shortlisted for best new writer at the British Sports Book Awards. His book, On The Road: A Journey Through A Season, is available now to buy, here.