My favourite player? Easy: Paul Scholes.
Is he the greatest player of the last 15 years? Nah, probably not. But no other player has provided me with as much joy in the years I’ve been watching football as Paul Scholes.
Of course there’s the wondergoals: the swinging volley off a corner v. Bradford in 2000, the thunderbolt against Boro in that same year, the 40-yard howitzer in ’06 at Villa. And greatest of all: the rocket against Barcelona to take United to the 2008 Champions League final. But the goals are just the icing, and the cake is very sweet.
To me his career has been that of two, maybe three, world-class footballers. The first was a lively attacking midfielder, comfortable both in and out of the box, creating so many goals for others and guaranteed to grab 10+ goals a season for himself – he was Lampard before Lampard. Providing the shimmer to Roy Keane’s steel, he was half of the last great central-midfield duo in the 4-4-2 era. Then from mid-2001 to 2004, he played behind a certain Rutgerus van Nistelrooij, netting 43 goals over the period. To the extent that this was a different position, it emphasised his goalscoring prowess, but (in my opinion) to the detriment of his general play. After his weird eye injury in early 2006, and with the passage of time limiting his mobility, he had to adjust his game to suit new physical conditions and a new tactical system. I’ll go out on a limb here and say he adjusted his game really, really well.
Notice how, even when he tries a raking 70-yard ball to the wing, Scholes is not flashy. Every touch, every run into space, is calculated three moves in advance. In the Youtube era, where kids prioritise seal-dribbles and elasticos before they can control a ball or sidefoot a pass, he never takes a meaningless touch, never overelaborates, never beats his man for its own sake. Why does he always seem to receive the ball in space? Instant control and awareness. How could he always pick out wide players, from the one-paced Beckham to the speed-demon Valencia? His every pass accounts for the attributes of his teammates. Because of that, he’s the kind of player that anyone can appreciate, from diehard tactical experts to his fellow pros – Zidane, Xavi, Iniesta, you know the list – to new fans in search of a hero.
Now let’s talk about the comeback. Indulge me a bit here, because I’m going to ramble, but it’s because I think the comeback holds the secret to why Scholes is so great. 99% of the time, I really don’t like players or managers or bands (especially bands) come out of retirement for one last shot at glory. Because 97.3% of the time it becomes a stain on their legacy and the asterisk on their Wikipedia page – see Pumpkins, Smashing – and I’m a firm believer in legacies and relatively uncluttered Wikipedia pages. But back to Scholes, the amazing thing about his return has been how little it’s affected, and how little it probably will affect, his legacy. There are three major reasons why I think that’s the case.
First, the comeback wasn’t really about him. Unlike 82% of other famous-people comebacks, it wasn’t about money (I will bet you anything in this world that Paul Scholes is fiscally responsible). United were clearly experiencing a midfield crisis at the time, Sir Alex issued a “help us Obi-wan” plea to Scholesy and he said “sure, no probs.” Second, he has mostly played very well since returning to action – the general feeling was that the 8 months rest after 2010/11 did him a world of good, and he undoubtedly improved the second half of our season. Third, and most important, I think: Scholes has this weird quality of being blamelessly good at football. Let me explain: it’s not that he doesn’t make mistakes (he does) or that the mistakes he makes don’t affect the team negatively sometimes (they do). It’s that even when he does make mistakes or have poor games (away at City in April, for example), nobody really cares because they enjoy watching him play too much. This quality is so rare, not even Ryan Giggs gets this treatment from fans. Through some combination of gingerness, humility and kicking a ball with unerring accuracy towards other people for 20 years, he’s earned this goodwill from everyone in the football world (except diehard Steven Gerrard fans because they cannot be helped), and in a strange way, that’s what I think makes him great.
Creativity, awareness, unselfishness, eye for goal, dedication, flexibility. A football brain to overcome all physical limitations. His shyness and awkwardness in front of a camera are a wonderful bonus, giving lie to the nonsense that “great players must be a bit arrogant.” It’s a joy and an honour to watch Paul Scholes play football.
He still can’t tackle though. Who cares? Nabokov couldn’t drive, Jesus had a club foot, yada yada yada.
Written By Robert Martinez
Follow him on Twitter @Elrob