There’s an overwhelming rush of emotion as you try to explain Paul Scholes. A rush that comes to a screeching halt as you just can’t figure out that perfect word or feeling for it. But you know it’s there and it’s so deep inside you that it feels like you are under the ocean, suffocating, as you frantically wave your hands and try to grab anything you can but you seem to just miss that escape, that answer.
It’s not easy. Words like legend, genius and the like are too common these days. They would never do justice to Paul Scholes. No way. It’s a classic irony that the man himself is the embodiment of simplicity. But you still don’t give up. A bit more effort and a bit more time and you finally come up with a word, a feeling, for this man. And then the words just don’t stop. The dam has been broken. You breathe again.
Paul Scholes, at his peak, was not a football player. You would be naive to call it football. Nor was his team just another football team. When you see the ball leave his foot and meet another player or the net, like a homing missile, every single time, you just have to stop the clock, pause your life, stand up and draw the line between football and madness. That’s not football, that’s not a game any more. There’s no possibility of him losing the ball. It is an exact science. It is like football is a complicated mathematical equation which he has somehow managed to solve.
His play is exact, certain, decided. The ball is going to come to his foot, he’ll do a bit of ginger magic when he kicks the ball and the ball will find its target, wherever might that be. Every time. SatNav, his team-mates christened him. The nearest my eyes and senses have come to witness such a phenomenon is by watching Ennio Morricone capture and bamboozle the audience with his masterpiece, the Ecstasy of Gold. He’s up there in the middle, marshalling an army, all by himself with computerised precision and the result is something unnatural or probably the zenith of all things natural. Watching a team with Paul Scholes play is like watching such an orchestra at its climax, with the little ginger at the centre, turning water to wine while he pulls the strings in the middle, decides the course of the game and makes the audience believe all this is just like having a cup of tea on a lazy sunday morning. For in the eyes of Scholes, that’s what football is, a simple game. He’s just that much higher than everyone else, from where he sees the game. A different planet.
But for all the magnificent glory of Scholes that our eyes were lucky to witness, it was equally likely that we may never have seen such a player at all. A scrawny little kid with asthma much before the days of booming sports science is hardly your standard prototype for a world-beating footballer. One look at him and Sir Alex Ferguson, of all people, dismissed his case. “He’s got no chance – he’s a midget,” was his verdict when he first saw a young Scholes playing in a youth team game for Manchester United in the late ’80s. Lee Sharpe famously recounted how the manager almost released him from the Youth Training Scheme. And if that wasn’t all, he suffered from Osgood- Schlatter disease during his teens and was ruled out of the second-half of the 2005-2006 season due to blurred vision. He overcame this problem yet his vision has never completely recovered. He basically played for six and half seasons after suffering permanent vision damage. Keeping all that in mind and now looking at the length of time Paul has played at the top-level and everything he has achieved in football just makes you wonder how blessed have Manchester United and football been, not to mention Scholes himself. It’s been a fairytale of the grandest scale. And it all started on September 21, 1994, with the most unassuming, innocuous occasion, a League Cup away game versus Port Vale.
There were nine youngsters in the line-up for this game including Gary Neville, Keith Gillespie, David Beckham, Nicky Butt and a 19-year-old Paul Scholes. Soon, Port Vale were one goal up. But one coolly taken right-foot chip over the keeper and one typical header later, the name of this game was changed forever. Three days later, he was playing with the big boys at Portman Road on his League debut against Ipswich. Manchester United lost the game 3-2 and yet the tiny 19-year-old managed to score another goal. As the big wide world, unaware of the significance of these minute tremors, continued to sleep, somewhere a football historian bought a new book, wrote the name of the little lad on the cover and began penning these events. Elsewhere, the young folks looked in disbelief at their new hero. The old folks nodded heads in agreement and looked up to the grey skies savouring the moment, their instinct screaming that it marked the beginning of something extraordinary. But Manchester United were expecting everything that happened. Manchester United knew exactly what was to happen. They had waited and waited and at the exact time, they had finally opened the gates. Paul Scholes had been unleashed.
Stunning passes and jaw-dropping goals become the order of the day as unparalleled glory followed the little lad as he kept on growing with Ferguson’s United. Sudden bursts of surreal magic were his thing as Liverpool found out in 1998. One moment United are defending a corner and second later Paul Scholes has pulled a rabbit out from nowhere and blasted a stupendous goal into the shell-shocked Liverpool net. Madness. It didn’t take too long for the world to sit up and take notice of this phenomenon. He might have been 5 ft 7in, but when the occasion demanded, he towered over everyone and everything by a mile and a half. His unbound passing range coupled with his off the charts football intelligence meant he was a gigantic threat to any team at any stage in the game.
As the Italians found out in 1999. United met Inter Milan in the Champions League quarter-final and the first leg was at Old Trafford. Two first-half goals from Dwight Yorke, a brilliant second half save from Peter Schmeichel and a dramatic goal-line clearance from Henning Berg made sure United’s advantage was intact. The second leg on St Patrick’s Day was at San Siro. It was always going to be tough. United held out until the 63rd minute, when Nicola Ventola put the hosts in front. The tie was alive. Another Inter goal and United would be in a massive pinch. Cometh the hour, cometh the man. With just two minutes remaining Paul Scholes settles all nerves and along the way, settles the game as he slots home to put United into the semi-finals. Just like that. And he was just a sub in this game. Right place, right time. Football intelligence.
Next up were the mighty Juventus and this tie brought to the fore what was already well established, Paul Scholes was a team player. The second leg at the Stadio Delle Alpi was beautifully set up by the 1-1 draw in the first leg at Old Trafford as United went into Turin as underdogs. Captain Keane was yellow carded and so was Paul Scholes, as he came on as a sub later in the game, and this meant a suspension for both from appearing in the European Cup final, Manchester United’s first European Cup final in three decades. The stuff of a footballer’s wildest dreams. Yet Roy Keane, despite knowing he would be absent from the final, put on one of the most inspiring captain performances of all-time and Paul Scholes proved to be extremely pivotal in snatching a win from the Italians’ stronghold, European final or not. Anything for the team. The very definition of class. To this day, as the talk veers into the European Cup final celebrations and him and Roy appearing in suits, he still refuses to count that trophy as his, simply because he didn’t play in the final. Class. His humility is almost as legendary as his football. They don’t make such players any more.
By this time the legend of Paul Scholes was well in force although he continued to be under-rated in his homeland. But things like that never bothered Paul Scholes. He was too busy writing and rewriting history. 2000. Manchester United were labouring against a determined Panathinaikos side in the Champions League. 80 minutes and it’s still tied 1-1. Pass, pass, pass… pass. Then Paul Scholes does a classic diagonal to Dwight Yorke. Couple of passes before Teddy Sheringham shows a lovely touch. Enter Paul Scholes. Today’s menu would be? A glorious diagonal chip. Only the legendary Eric Cantona chip can rival something so beautiful. Another game put to bed.
2003 and Paul Scholes was in the mood for a hat-trick. A trademark first-time volley, a piledriver into the top corner and a cool side-foot. Newcastle didn’t know what happened. But those eleven players will still be rambling about it to their kids and grandkids. So will the crowd. It was like a storm on full blast you just couldn’t stop. It was unreal. It was…Scholes. That season the little lad scored 20 goals for the club, the highest in his career. Manchester United ended up winning the Premier League. Obviously. 2004. Arsenal’s Invincibles were running away with the League and United had to face them in the FA Cup semi-final. He rises up, beats the ‘unbeatables’ and pulls United into the final. United eventually won the FA Cup. Scholes was quietly turning out to be one of the greatest players Manchester United have ever had.
It’s a funny and exceedingly singular habit of Scholes to score in his milestone games for Manchester United. In 2006, as the record stood, he had managed to score in his 100th, 300th and 400th game for United. 22 October 2006 was going to be his 500th game for United against none other than Liverpool. The stage was set. And the magician wasn’t one to disappoint. He first glanced a header skilfully towards Wayne Rooney then darted into the box to meet Ryan Giggs’ low cross and force it past Pepe Reina. The record rolled on and as we all know, he managed to score in his 700th game for United as well.
Paul Scholes has scored many surreal goals in his long and illustrious career and as he was nearing his end, he still had a trick up his sleeve. He may have missed the Champions League final in 1999, but his desire to play in at least one during his career was obvious in the 2008 semi-final. United had played out a goalless draw against Barcelona at the Nou Camp and everything was set for the return leg at Old Trafford. Sensing the occasion, Scholes pulled a dinosaur from his ginger-magic bag and left the stadium in disbelief. And it was the only goal of the game. Paul Scholes had single-handedly catapulted Manchester United into the Champions League final. And he went on to be the proud winner this time.
Whenever the talk veers to the best goal of all ridiculous goals Paul Scholes has ever scored, it somehow always ends up with that one against Bradford or the other one against Aston Villa. This one against Barcelona is right up there as well. Frankly, almost all his goals are ridiculous but these three top the list of the crazy. And you will run out of adjectives to describe these goals. “Sweet”, “beautiful”, “stunning”, “brilliant” and the like just don’t cut it with Paul Scholes. If you sit down to describe a Paul Scholes goal, the minimum level you must be willing to set is “crazy”. “Ridiculous”, “outrageous”, “madness”, “blasphemous”, “criminal” are the ones you would want to bet on if you’re to do any sort of justice to his goals. And the Bradford, Barcelona and Aston Villa rockets are right up there in the scale of the blatantly outrageous. Ask him to choose his best goal and he’ll pick the Aston Villa missile over the Bradford scorcher. In his words:
“We never worked on it in training. Becks just took the corner, I gave him a little look to let him know I was there, he delivered it to where I wanted and I volleyed it in. We were on the same wavelength. I’m not sure that’s my best goal, though. My best is probably the one at Aston Villa when I volleyed it again from outside the area. That was more difficult.”
Apart from his passing and goal-scoring exploits, three other things really stand-out about the Salford lad. His adaptability, his humility and his mental strength. All are legendary and unsurpassed. From an out-and-out attacking midfielder or almost a second striker to a deep lying playmaker, pulling the strings and clearing the path for the younger lads to hit the final nail in the coffin, his transformation has been stunning, seamless and immaculate. Such a transformation is essential if you are to keep playing at the highest level for the biggest club well into your late thirties and not many can or have done that. Just a select band of classy players.
As for his humility, in the era of money and commercialisation, Paul Scholes has been the most beautiful gift football could’ve ever asked for. It is unbelievable to think that Paul Scholes and Cristiano Ronaldo or David Beckham are from the same planet, let alone the same team. “Train in the morning, pick up my children from school, play with them, have tea, put them to bed and then watch a bit of TV.” That’s how the greatest midfielder of our generation likes to spend his day. He has a great game, a fantastic game and the press go on to interview him once the match is done. Problem is, he’s already on his way back home. When they find him next, they question him why would he do such a thing. Paul Scholes will give them an utterly puzzled look as he answers. “Because I wanted to get home,” he says, sounding surprised the answer was not obvious. “I always do. What’s the point in hanging around?” Paul Scholes, ladies and gentlemen. If the fact that he was the complete midfielder made him extremely rare in the world of football, this made Paul Scholes the only one of his kind in the game.
To play for a club like Manchester United the way he has for as long as he has, would have been impossible for any other lad, however talented he might have been, if it wasn’t all backed up by extreme mental strength and in the words of Thierry Henry, Paul Scholes’ mental strength was “indestructible”. Nothing ever fazed him. No-one ever fazed him. Quite a lot of credit must go to his manager as well for every side under Sir Alex Ferguson has had this mentality and Paul Scholes was the alpha-male of the lot. This also brings us to the most notorious aspect of Paul Scholes’ football: his tackling. Some say he’s just bad at it, others say that he tries but sometimes he connects and sometimes he doesn’t. So again, they just say he sucks at tackling. But the most interesting opinion on this was shared by the man who knew Paul Scholes’ game quite well. According to Roy Keane, Paul Scholes never mistimed a single tackle. They were all deliberate fouls. And Scholes doesn’t deny that. When asked if he was just too bad at tackling or if Roy Keane was right, Scholes was pretty clear about it.
“I don’t think my tackling was that bad. Sometimes if someone had got me, I would have it in the back of my mind who it was, and I would try to bide my time to get them back, so I suppose Roy does have a point.”
So much has been said about the on-field brilliance of Paul Scholes but one of his more under-stated qualities, apart from his unbelievable humility, is his attachment to Manchester United. In this era of fast money and non-existent morality, the story of Paul Scholes and Manchester United is poetic. Sir Alex Ferguson denies he has ever had offers for Scholes because everybody knows how much he loves Manchester United. When asked if he had ever wanted to leave Manchester, Paul Scholes was quite clear about it.
“I love the area, I love everything about it. What more could anybody need in Manchester? I don’t know. You’ve got the best club, a great city to go to, a great place to live. There’s just never been any need [to leave]. Manchester means everything to me. I absolutely love it. I get to play for the best club in the world and it’s on my doorstep. What more could you ask for?”
Paul Scholes’ love for the club, the game and the city of Manchester is romantic. And nothing highlighted it more than him coming out of retirement to the rescue of his club. Not just that, his performances on the pitch left the crowd and critics gaping in amazement as he kept outshining the younger and supposedly better players week in, week out. All after having retired and being out of the game for half a year. That was classic Scholes. Thing is, you can’t do that by just having love for the club or just having class. You need to have both and at their utmost maximum levels. Just one of the many ways in which Paul Scholes has been unique in football’s long and beautiful history.
As fans, it has always been a source of extreme joy in supporting a club like Manchester United and watching a player like Paul Scholes pull that red shirt on year in, year out, for his whole career makes your heart swell with unbound pride. But like all good things in life, this journey too has come to an end and might I add, a beautiful one. It’s an obvious fact of life that good or bad, nothing can last forever but to have known that a man like Paul Scholes gave his all for your club and to have been around to watch him play for so long would be memories that every United fan would cherish forever. And the best thing about Paul Scholes is that the love he gets is not limited to just United fans. If there is a guy who would be universally loved for the way he has played the game and conducted himself throughout his career, it’s Paul Scholes. Almost every great has paid glowing tributes to this phenomenon and they are endless. And so is the love that a United fan would have for him, for all he has done for us and the way he has done that. Precisely the reason why, when the ginger lad did his thing against Manchester City in injury time and Gary Neville kissed him, every United fan understood why.
Of the many tributes to Paul Scholes and each exceptionally good in their own right, the one I love the most is probably the one by Socrates, mostly because of its poignant simplicity.
“Good enough to play for Brazil. I love to watch Scholes, to see him pass, the boy with the red hair and the red shirt.”
The greatest we’ve had since Duncan Edwards and George Best, the greatest my eyes were privileged to see alive, my ultimate idol, adieu Maestro, it’s been a hell of a ride.
A United fan from the subcontinent. Obscenely obsessed with George Best and Paul Scholes. Firm believer of David de Gea and his beard, with a soft spot for a certain Mexican at Old Trafford. Also a poet, when no one's looking.