18 years ago today, Paul Scholes made his first team debut, scoring both goals as Manchester United overcame Port Vale in the Football League Cup. A lot has changed in football since but somehow the midfield maestro’s impact on the pitch remains the same – his passing range still unbeatable, the way he dictates games even more masterful and his probing play on the edge of the area still a constant source of goals for the Manchester club.
Though a Salford lad through and through – he was born not far from Old Trafford and on the rare occasions he talks to the TV cameras, does so with a strong Mancunian accent and sharp Northern sense of humour - there’s something distinctly un-English about Scholes.
In a footballing culture that idolises industrious runners and bullish charges forward, the 37-year-old is known for his patient passing play - since returning for Manchester United in January 2012 after a stab at retirement (“he was missing it too much,” says Sir Alex Ferguson) Scholes has maintained a 92.37% pass completion rate, losing possession on average once every 154 minutes.
It’s this sort of measured, elegant movement of the ball that has made champions of Spain and Barcelona – and Scholes may well be the inspiration. “Paul Scholes is a role model,” says the man regarded this generation’s pass-master, Xavi Hernandez. “For me – and I really mean this – he’s the best central midfielder I’ve seen in the last 15, 20 years. If he’d been Spanish he might have been rated more highly.”
Xavi isn’t the only great of the game to rate the Manchester United mainstay. “Scholes is undoubtedly the greatest midfielder of his generation,” argues Zinedine Zidane, while Brazil’s Socrates says: “He is good enough to play for Brazil. I love to watch Scholes, to see him pass, the boy with the red hair and red shirt.” Typically, despite his incredible reputation among his peers, Scholes is quick to play down his own talents: “when [my career is] over I just want to be able look in the mirror and say, well, you were a half-decent player.”
For Scholes’ legion of admirers, that humility is part of what makes him special even beyond his feats on the pitch. “No celebrity bullshit, no self-promotion – an amazingly gifted player who remained an unaffected human being,” says Roy Keane. Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger meanwhile suggests: “he [does] not get completely what he deserves as a player because he’s not a media lion. He’s not the one who runs after the media to be in the papers. I respect that.”
There’s a sense that Scholes is a player whose focus is resolutely on the pitch, with little time for the glittering lifestyle that comes with life at the top – a dying breed of footballer, particularly among the English.
Perhaps it should be of no surprise, then, that Scholes’ England career never really took off in the way it should have and ended prematurely, his managers at international level seemingly unable to accommodate a player whose approach to football is arguably more sophisticated than that of the rest of the team. Having guided Manchester United to such success in his time at Old Trafford – the 37-year-old has won 10 Premier League titles, the Champions League twice, 3 FA Cups, 5 Community Shields and 2 League Cups in his 18 years at the club – it’s tempting to wonder what England could have achieved had one coach had the guile to build their team around the dynamic, progressive Scholes rather than his flashier counterparts.
When Scholes lines up against Liverpool tomorrow, he'll make his 701st appearance in United colours (the third highest number after Ryan Giggs and Bobby Charlton). But whatever the outcome of that particular grudge match, his reputation as one of the game's greatest unsung heroes is beyond dispute.
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