Ben Wilkinson pays tribute to Paul Scholes: a footballer’s footballer…
Ever since Paul Scholes retired quite suddenly in May, football writers and pundits have been fumbling about, trying to say something meaningful about a man who by all accounts is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.
It hasn’t helped that just when we thought we had Scholes figured out–a good player, scored goals, lost his pace, solid passer, horrible tackles–every other footballer in the world opened their mouths and blew our minds.
Personally, I blame Zidane. Imagine the reaction when a man widely considered one of the greatest players of all time, a man who won FIFA World Player of the Year thrice and lifted the Champions League trophy, who represented his country over 100 times and scored twice in a World Cup final, named Scholes as the greatest midfielder of this generation.
Then, earlier this year, the world’s best central midfielder identified Scholes as the best central midfielder of the past 20 years. “I have spoken about this with Xabi Alonso many times,” Xavi said in his interview with the Daily Mail, “Scholes is a spectacular player who has everything. He can play the final pass, he can score, he is strong, he never gets knocked off the ball and he doesn’t give possession away. If he had been Spanish then maybe he would have been valued more.”
To be fair, professional footballers have tried to tell us this all along. There was Davids at Juventus, interrupting a reporter who called him the best midfielder in the world to remark: “I’m not the best. Scholes is.” Or Socrates, captain of the legendary 1982 World Cup squad, claiming that “Scho-les” was good enough to play for Brazil. Or Thierry Henry admitting to Sky Sport News that the Gunners feared him more than any other player in the Premier League…and presumably not just for his tackling.
The problem isn’t that these comments are somehow false or overblown, tinted by pity or nostalgic reflection. They’re not. The problem is that many fans–even in the Manchester United faithful–never fully realized how truly special he was, even though the entire world had every chance. He ghosted in and out of our frame each week, never flashy or pretentious, simply going about his business. (And what business it was!) But that was typical Scholes: shy, self-effacing, never one for the limelight.
It’s difficult to put your finger on his specific greatness, partly because as Brian Phillips puts it, the nature of Scholes’s game was always to beat you in such a way that you couldn’t quite tell how he did it. In order to remember, you have to think, to really concentrate, and then certain images come slowly into focus: unnoticed supporting runs, clinically-driven volleys, thunderbolt goals…also ten Premier League titles, three FA Cup trophies, and two Champions League medals.
Most of us don’t remember that it was Scholes, slipping quietly behind Messi’s right shoulder to drive a long shot past Valdez, who dumped Barcelona out of the Champions League and sent Manchester United to the final in 2008. We forget that he’s one of only 19 Premier League players to reach 100 goals, that he did it by scoring in all 17 seasons. And we’re far more likely to recall any of his infamous, red-mist lunges than the astounding fact that he’s scored more goals than any Englishman in Champions League history.
Even in recent years, when those goals began slipping away, there was still the accuracy, those quick touches so simple and direct. Blink and you’d miss them. Most of us did. No one ever talked about his passing, but there it was for all to see, even at the end of his career. In one of his last games for Manchester United–the Blackburn away match in May–Scholes came on a substitute and completed 61 passes in 30 minutes, more than any Blackburn player made in a full match all season.
It’s a level of technical ability so under-appreciated in the English game that we needed Xavi to remind us that Scholes could really have been Spanish, should really have been Spanish. They loved him, but for different reasons. While we asked silly questions about Lampard vs. Gerrard, Real Madrid’s galacticos were crowding around Beckham like little kids, asking what it was like to play with Paul Scholes.
Off the pitch, he remained just as obscure, rarely appearing for cameras or attending press conferences. (Seriously, do you even know what Paul Scholes sounds like?) And his image as a clean-cut family man hasn’t wavered. Once during a rare interview he outlined his ideal day: “Train in the morning, pick up the kids from school, go home, play with kids, have tea, get them up to bed, and then come down to watch a bit of TV.” My God, it all sounds so…normal.
If anything, it was Scholes’ normality that made him so unusual in the modern game. In an age where footballers change teams at an ever increasing pace, he was a one club man. Married to his childhood sweetheart, he’s gone about family life in the same serious way he went about the game: no fuss, no press, no super-injuctions. A superstar in his own right with reason to brag, Scholes shunted all credit in his typical fashion: “When it’s over I just want to be able to look in the mirror and say, Well, you were a half-decent player.” He never asked for much, did he?
Perhaps Brian Phillips said it best in his tribute piece at the Run of Play: “It took a mind for the game to fathom his mind for the game. The result was that little kids didn’t grow up wanting to be Paul Scholes; superstar footballers did.”