21st Century Greats – Paul Scholes

Do you know The Smiths? They were this indie band from Salford in the 80s and, while they were still playing, everybody knew that they were pretty damn good.

However, once they were finished, people began revering them as an almost infallible deity, so much so that today their inability to reach mainstream accessibility is deemed a case of acute musical philistinism and they are praised as if they were Orphaean gifts to Thatcherite Britain. Why do I bring this up? No particular reason actually.

Just as Howling Wolf is cited as the rock musician’s musican, Paul Scholes is the English footballer’s footballer.

Just as Howling Wolf is cited as the rock musician’s musican, Paul Scholes is the English footballer’s footballer.

By the time of the new millennium, Paul Scholes had already established himself for club and country as a key figure in any midfield and a man blessed with the ability to summon the wrath of God from his right boot. At this time, his game differed somewhat from the archpuppeteer he would become in later life.

The impact Scholes provided tended to come further up the pitch, either in the form of a lacerating pass or a well-timed foray into the penalty area. In many ways, he provided the template upon which England team-mates Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard would later build Hall of Fame careers.

The arrival of Ruud Van Nistelrooy from PSV in 2001 allowed Alex Ferguson to accentuate these gifts as he deployed Scholes behind the forward in a 4-4-1-1 formation over the next few seasons, leading to a surge in the midfielder’s goalscoring prowess (a career-high 20 in 2003) if also a dip in his team’s overall effectiveness.

The turning point in Scholes’ career came in 2006. A case of near-blindness, combined with the ravages of time, transformed him into a deep-lying playmaker feeding the likes of Rooney & Ronaldo with one succulent treat after another.

His annus mirabilis was the 2006/07 season where he won a place in PFA Team of the Year in the process of re-establishing Manchester United as England’s dominant predator.

Over the following seasons, the gnomic midfielder was the point of origin for near every United attack, the diode which lit up game after game with a measured way of approaching football in a league synonymous Paleolithic directness.

When Paul Scholes retired (at the second attempt) in 2013, he left behind a list of honours longer than Jimmy Saville’s rap sheet. However, this is not the legacy most indicative of what Scholes was.

Instead, it is the comments from legends like Xavi, Zidane and Pele who rate the United midfielder as the greatest of his age that cements Scholes’ place in football history. Perhaps then this is how Scholes will be remembered.

Just as Howling Wolf is cited as the rock musician’s musican, Paul Scholes is the English footballer’s footballer. He is a man who’s role on the pitch was so subtle that the average fan might not notice it…and yet so crucial that none of the victories they were so overjoyed to witness might have occurred without him.

By Gregory McNally

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