My favourite footballer? Easy: Paul Scholes.
Is he the greatest player of the last 15 years? No. Surely Zidane and Messi will contend for that title when the histories of this era are written. Yet no other player has provided me with as much joy in the years I’ve been watching football as Paul Scholes.
Of course there are the wonder goals: that swinging volley from David Beckham’s corner against Bradford in 2000, the thunderbolt against Middlesbrough in the same year, the 40-yard howitzer in at Aston Villa 2006 and greatest of all: the rocket against Barcelona to take United to the 2008 Champions League final. But the goals are just the icing on a very sweet cake.
To me his career has been that of two, maybe three, world-class footballers. The first was as a lively attacking midfielder, comfortable both in and out of the box, creating goals for others and guaranteed to grab at least ten 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 (unless you count Arsenal’s fluid 2002-04 team as a 4-4-2).
Then, from mid-2001 to 2004, he played almost as a support striker behind Ruud van Nistelrooy, netting 43 goals over the period. To the extent that this was a different position, it emphasised his goal scoring prowess but, in my opinion, to the detriment of his general play. Sir Alex’s first experiment in post-Treble European tactics – a response to the Real Madrid evisceration in 2000 – was a failure, yet Scholes’ reputation was unblemished and, to some, enhanced.
2004-2006 were difficult years as a Mourinho-led Chelsea became a Premier League force and European disappointment became the norm. During United’s reshuffle designed to repel Chelsea’s creeping dominance, some questioned what place there would be for the Salford man. After his mysterious 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.
And how he did! Scholes towards the end of his career has been a joy to watch. Whether accompanied by the cultured talents of Michael Carrick (especially in 06/07), the lung-bursting style of Darren Fletcher, or both, he has been a supreme dictator of a football match possessing an ability to control the tempo of a game bettered only by Xavi Hernandez. With younger legs making the attacking runs ahead of him, he’s showed time and time again that you don’t need the engine of a Michael Essien or the drive of an Edgar Davids to boss the middle of the park.
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 over-elaborates, 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? This is a player whose every pass accounts for the attributes of his teammates.
A classic example of this was Cristiano Ronaldo’s incredible header against Roma in 2008. No matter what angle you replay the goal from, when Scholes lofts that ball across Ronaldo isn’t even in the picture. I remember when this goal was scored, my friends wondered, “did Scholes make that cross knowing Ronaldo would get to it?” It being my tenth year of seeing him do such things, I knew the answer immediately.
Creativity, awareness, unselfishness, eye for goal, dedication and tactical flexibility. Paul Scholes possesses a football brain to overcome all physical limitations. His humility and shyness are a wonderful bonus, giving lie to the nonsense that “great players must be a bit arrogant”. When I was new to football, I started supporting United because of David Beckham and, a year later, my fellow countryman Dwight Yorke. But I love football because of Paul Scholes.
He still can’t tackle though. Nabokov couldn’t drive, Jesus had a club foot, yada yada yada.
*Although, according to Jonathan Wilson’s superb Inverting the Pyramid, Ferguson “maintains, with some justification, that he has never played 4-4-2, but has always used split forwards.” (p.345)
Follow Robert on Twitter @elrob.