The clue was in the headline. ‘Simply the best,’ wrote Jamie Jackson in an article for The Guardian in May 2008. On the eve of the most important match of an already illustrious career stood Paul Scholes. He had been thrust into a limelight he had so often strove – and managed – to avoid.
Jackson goes on to detail an anecdote involving the former Manchester United midfielder, who would feature in the Champions League final later that week. It was told by his old coach, Eric Harrison.
“My wife has asthma, as does Paul, so I know all about it,” Harrison began. Already, a picture of an unassuming genius was painted. “It’s well down the pecking order when it comes to raising money. The campaign people contacted me, but it was a non-starter without Paul.”
Harrison continued: “I was a bit concerned about asking him because he’s so shy. But Paul agreed without hesitation. I told him to bring his wife, Claire, and although he was happy to help, you could see he was worried. When they arrived at around six that evening Paul said, “What do I have to do?” I told him he was on the top table for the dinner. That got him going. “I’m not!” he said. I had to say to him, “Paul, you are, all you have to do is take a few questions, and answer them”. He did it, and did it well.”
As the story goes, Scholes’ initial reaction to being told he would have to speak publicly was: “‘Sh*t! I don’t have to get up and say a few words, do I? And with a microphone? What do I do?” It is completely in keeping with his image as a player: The shy, reticent, withdrawn but supremely talented footballer. Again, the unassuming genius.
Upon his second and definitive retirement in 2013, with 20 years of first-team football for England’s most successful club side, and 25 trophies to his name, attention soon turned to Scholes’ future. Would he try his hand at management? Perhaps he would become a coach? Or maybe, and infinitely more likely, he would simply enjoy his relative anonymity, being excused for his abysmal parking because he drives so well, and finding joy in telling passers-by that he could hit that tree with a football from 427 yards away.
Punditry? No, not a chance. That was a path that split two ways, and neither would be followed by Scholes. Of the ex-footballers to carve out a career in television, there are the Robbie Savages, and there are the Jamie Carraghers. The former group, of whom Thierry Henry, Michael Owen and Chris Sutton are paid members, offer little insight and analysis despite long and storied histories as elite players. The latter group, the Carraghers, manage to transfer at least some of their skills on the pitch into their personas behind the camera. Their numbers include Gary Neville, Rio Ferdinand and Jermaine Jenas, to name a handful.
Then came his first appearance as a guest pundit. Sky Sports handed him a microphone in early 2014. Scholes’ first reaction was not ‘Sh*t! I don’t have to say a few words, do I?’ – far from it. In fact, according to the Manchester Evening News, he was a ‘revelation’, a breath of straight-talking, no-nonsense fresh air. The highlights from his punditry debut included the following description of a Marouane Fellaini performance:
“Well, he’s not been great so far has he?”
It is that kind of insight which earned Scholes a four-year contract as a pundit for BT Sport in 2014, and it is that kind of insight which threatens to besmirch the legacy of one of the most gifted footballers of the modern day. The older generation and those who grew up with the 41-year-old dominating midfields in the Premier League each week now see a man who appears to have sold his soul and betrayed his endearing humility to offer dull platitudes and minimal perception for money. The younger generation will see Scholes as no different to Savage or Sutton when, in actual fact, he belongs in the same conversations as Xavi and Zidane. But, unfortunately, the pundit is now threatening to engulf the player.
Scholes’ achievements can never be forgotten or downplayed. He was an integral member of a number of Sir Alex Ferguson’s separate Manchester United iterations, reinventing himself from striker to deep-lying playmaker with consummate ease. He remained a significant influence on the most successful side in English club football history throughout the 1990s and into the 2000s. He was a truly magnificent footballer.
But even among United fans he has ceded some of that aura, relinquished most of the charm that set him apart from Ryan Giggs or David Beckham. He even transcended the most bitter club rivalries for many: Liverpool and Manchester City supporters were much more content hating a Neville or a Giggs, or maybe even a Butt ahead of a Scholes. Three years on from his retirement, he is uniting football fans across England once more – only this time it is in disappointment and frustration at things like this.
Scholes’ descent into rentagob, sensationalist punditry is akin to the first time you heard your grandfather say something racist. Here is your hero, your idol, the individual you used to look up to; now you can never look at them in that same idealistic light again.
“People thought he was camera-shy,” Roy Keane once said of his former teammate. “He just couldn’t be bothered. None of us liked doing interviews, but it was a responsibility of the dressing room, you shared the load. ‘Scholesy’s too humble to do it.’ Well, he’s f**king doing it now, isn’t he?” He certainly is, only now it is tarnishing his reputation as a wonderful player. The ginger prince has become the king of the mundane.