Everybody loves… Paul Scholes – the peerless, working-class hero

Ian Watson

Who’s this then?

Paul Scholes is a 45-year-old Salford-born, one-club man, playing as a midfielder for Manchester United’s youth team from 1991-1993 before turning professional. From 1993 to 2013 he notched up 499 league appearances, 718 in total, and 155 goals. He played for England a total of 66 times, registering 14 goals along the way.

Widely regarded as the best midfielder of his generation, he racked up 11 league title wins, three FA Cups, two League Cups and two Champions League winner’s medals.

His peak years for goalscoring was 2002-03 when he netted 20 in 52 games, but for most of his career could be relied upon to get into double figures, before later settling into a more withdrawn playmaker role.

Although only 5’ 6” somehow he seemed bigger. Hard to dispossess of the ball, he had a mean streak running through him which meant he could always look after himself. His legendary terrible tackling, often excused as mere ineptitude by commentators too keen to give him the benefit of the doubt, was nothing of the sort. It was very often a case of getting even or just outright aggression. The idea that this was a brilliant player miscalculating a challenge was almost never the case. More often than not, he knew exactly what he was doing and would go in late and low taking the man when the ball was long gone.

He initially retired in summer 2011 and joined United’s coaching staff, then came out of retirement six months later and played on until the end of the 2013 season. His last game was as a substitute against WBA. Did he get a yellow card? Of course he did. His 97th. Somehow, despite some of those very dirty tackles, he only got four red cards.

With it now being seven years since he retired, distance gives us a better perspective on his career and I think it can be said that despite always being hailed as an important part of two great United teams, there remains a feeling that somehow he was still underrated possibly down to his unassuming nature, low profile and his status as a one-club man.

The fact he didn’t always flourish at international level may also have led to his brilliance being somewhat under recognised. However, if anyone is in doubt of how good he was, while reel clips show moments of sheer brilliance, they don’t always reflect how he commanded a game, how he operated on a different level and as such always had time and space.



Why the love?

I’ve said it before when writing this column but the Manchester United team of the mid to late 90s was a killing machine, not just a great football side but gnarly and gritty in a way that simply isn’t required in the 2020 neutered version of the game. There was no-one to touch them for a while and standing back dispassionately over 20 years later, the quality of the football and above all the level of excitement they delivered time and again, remains without parallel. Only the current Liverpool team can get near to matching them, but they’re playing under a very different rulebook, one that makes attacking play easier and which protects skilful ball players. United had no such luxury in the more brutal, more thrilling 1990s. They had an irresistible indefatigable quality about them and Paul was in the boiler room, stoking their engines.

When watching clips of Scholesy the thing you notice first is just how scarily direct United were in their 90s pomp. They’d hurt you with the ball and hurt you off the ball. Paul was innate to that drive. He was the piston in the United engine that drove towards goal without any fannying around. Nothing fancy, just rapier-like passing and a stone-cold killer’s eye for goal.

And my God, he could pass the ball. But he didn’t just tap it, he fired it like an exocet to a teammates feet, regularly zipping 40 yard diagonals to a wide man. As the attacking fulcrum, he must’ve been axiomatic to so many United goals across 20 years. Ben Foster later described his first training session at United.

“Someone has rolled this ball into Scholesy. It’s bounced just before he could make contact – a really nasty bounce. He’s altered his body shape in the blink of an eye and just smashed this ball. It did not wobble in the air. It went like a bullet, four feet off the ground for 50 yards and Giggsy or whoever just did not move. They chested it down and off they went.”

Watching him again, it’s amazing how he created time and space for himself, often pushing the ball out in front of him before lasering it 50 yards. But he could operate in tight situations too because of his perfect control of the ball. He often cantered in a tight circle to get away from a pressing opposition player, then looked up and pinged it. It all looks deceptively simple but no-one else could do it quite like Scholesy.

And then there was his legendary ability to volley the ball. Possibly the hardest skill in the playbook, he made it seem effortless, almost casual.

He would routinely strike a ball first time with power, even if it was coming across him, which is notoriously hard to do. But on top of his brilliance as a footballer, he was also totally and completely down to earth. For years he would avoid the post-game interviews and had zero interest in the more glamorous post-game lifestyle, preferring to go and watch Oldham play.

From a young age there was always something of the Lowry figure about him, shoulders a little slumped forward, walking across cobbles that glisten in the sleety rain, head bowed against a stiff wind blowing in off the moors, an air of dour resignation, if not downright misery about him. You rarely saw him smile. He was never boyish or cheeky, there was an air of life being something to be endured about him, and that very much endeared him as a man of the people to fans. He seemed like one of us at a time when rich footballers were disappearing behind the tinted windows of financial privilege.

Even as the big money kicked in, Paul didn’t have an agent and is said to have signed contracts without even looking them through. While this is rightly often romanticised, it was typical of the lack of self-aggrandisement of the man that he felt no need to have someone pumping him up for more cash. It should also be said that he was well paid and didn’t need to hassle for any more money, the way more greedy people do. His grounded perspective knew that trying to maximise his income was pointless as it would just give him more money than he wanted or needed. Consequently, he just signed on for whatever was on offer knowing it was plenty. This should be more common than it is, but in today’s game, so drenched in unearned wealth and so obsessed with hoovering up ever more, it seems almost unbelievable that anyone would do this.

Despite notoriously being photographed with the old gentleman’s sausage on display, he had the respect of all his contemporaries. The likes of Xavi called him the best midfielder of the previous 20 years. However, his England career was less stellar, largely because no-one seemed to know where to play him. This was insane. Scholesy was the best central midfielder in the land, so just play him there, you absolute mugs. But the witless debate about where he, Lampard and Gerrard should play (why one or both of them couldn’t just be dropped, I don’t know) went on for pretty much his whole international career and he ended up stuck on the left wing, at which point he understandably thought ‘sod this for a game of soldiers’. It was a criminal waste of the finest of talents.

Since ending his career, many were surprised to see him develop a punditry career after so many years of silence, but no-one was surprised that he brought the vinegar to the punditry oil. Pleasingly hard to impress and with the sort of cynicism born of living under the slate grey skies of the north west, those that enjoy his work see him as an antidote to the more typical hyperbole that Premier League propaganda has inculcated as a reflex into so many. This is understandably seen as old-mannish grumpiness by some, but his eeyorish tendencies strike a chord with many viewers who weary of everyone blowing smoke up everyone else’s backsides.


What the people love

Perhaps one of the most impressive things about Paul is that for years he was one of the favourite players of many opposition fans. OK, he could leave one on a player and was, let’s be honest, splendidly dirty at times, but there was no denying his brilliance. Time and again, his long raking passes drew gasps and groans of admiration. That’s the true sign of a master.

BT Sport commentator, Darren Fletcher: “The most grounded and normal superstar I’ve ever met. He was going to join us at Cheltenham for the festival. We arranged some corporate hospitality, a meal etc. Scholsey arrived but didn’t want to hide himself away, so he went straight to Guineas village, the centaur bar and then walked from the course into the town centre after racing. He’s a great lad – a football nut and what a footballer! An all-time great in every sense of the word.”


Brilliant player. Looks like he should have a rolly hanging out the side of his mouth and seems proper miserable most of the time. Love him.

Just a pure footballer. Didn’t just play the difficult passes, he played the right pass at the right time. Awareness, technique and finishing. Without peers as English midfielder.

He wasn’t a bad tackler. He was dirty at times. And that is not a bad thing. All part of the game.

I know it’s a cliche but my favourite thing about him is how normal he is. No agent supposedly didn’t even read the contracts he had at United. Comes across like a normal bloke who happened to have an unusual job that he did extraordinarily well.

The king of the cross-field diagonal.

Always the United player I disliked the least..

The reactionary middle-aged man in me loves that his boot sponsor once sent him a garish, multi-coloured pair, which he sent back with a note asking for a black pair. Oh, arguably the best British footballer of his generation as well.

Technique, tenacity, tackling and todger are all words that spring to mind with Scholes!

Seemed to be the kind of gifted 10 England always said they needed at big tournaments…only to find out they then didn’t know what to do with him when he was available!?

Better than Becks. World class skill like Hoddle before him, so that 3 Lions couldn’t work out what to do with him. What a shame that he never played with a club from the Continent! Proud Englishman who withdrew from the 3 Lions when first non-English manager Sven was appointed.

Most overrated and most underrated player in English footy history. Figure that one out.

One of those players that was appreciated more after he retired than when he played. You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s going.

He tackled like a water buffalo on steroids..

I loved the narrative that “Poor old Scholesy was a clumsy tackler” as he’d launch late and two footed on a regular basis. Poor old Scholsey indeed.

Beautifully dishevelled. Nonchalantly magnificent.

The ginger magician

As usual with any mercurial talent (like Scholes), we (England) didn’t have the first clue how to use him properly. What a waste.

Simply a fantastic footballer. In later years he developed into that deep lying playmaker role, but he was at his best in the late 90s when Utd were the dominant force and he was a box to box midfielder who banged in goals. Loved a thunderbastard. Loved a (bad) tackle. Genius.

I’d say he got away with a lot of rubbish tackling, purely because apparently everyone knew he couldn’t. Even just constantly bundling people over harmlessly, which would/should equate to about 5 yellow cards per game nowadays for accumulation.

My favourite player. Criminally under-appreciated, and a lynchpin of two of the greatest sides this country has seen, not to mention his fantastic longevity. England are crying out for a player like him in their midfield nowadays.

I first saw Scholes play at Bishop Auckland’s ground in 1995 in a charity match to raise money for Bishop Auckland FC. He was great then and I’m pretty sure he’d still be better than most now. Not bad for an asthmatic.

His parents came to our bar in Benidorm (!) in the early noughties and were very nice and down to earth. They were having a drink with a family that looked after David Beckham (during his teenage years at Man Utd), who were sadly anything but.

Every time my Gran would see him on the tele she’d exclaim how unfair it was making him wear a red shirt as it ‘clashed’.

An absolute genius. Ginger god.

Played the best pass I’ve ever seen, smashed it 50 yards out to the right and it just sort of.. stopped at Gary Neville’s foot without the need to control it. Didn’t result in a goal so have never seen a replay of it, but it made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up

That goal against Barca at home in the Champions League Semi Final. Still brings shivers down my spine. Best game I’ve watched live. Utter theatre. And “what a strike”.

I don’t believe that he was fully recognised as a hugely skilful player outside of Old Trafford. This was partly because he was always played away from his preferred position for England due to the obsession with getting Lampard & Gerrard in the same team he could handle himself!

At a time when England had a “golden generation”, very few of them would’ve got any interest from the big European teams. Scholes, though, would’ve walked into any side.

Unapologetic ginger – always did his own thing off the field (who knows anything about his private life?) and was a player other players revered. Obviously hated by all opposition fans and gave not a single f***.

Criminally undervalued by England. Brilliant midfielder, definitely best of his generation in England, up there with the best in Europe, bar perhaps only Zidane.

I believe I first saw him when he played in Clayton Blackmore’s testimonial for Man Utd at Ayresome Park against Boro. Potentially the best centre midfielder I have ever seen. His passing and shooting were second to none and he had the ability to control the pace of a game.

He’s Billy Dane meets Alf Tupper. One for all Football Da’s to appreciate!

He was as bad at tackling as he was good at actually playing football. Small, slow, asthmatic, on paper he wasn’t an elite footballer at all really, but he was always one step ahead of everyone else mentally. Technically flawless at his best, he is one of the best CM’s I’ve seen.

Around 10 years ago a guy came into work and said “you’ll never guess who I was playing against last night in our local 5 a side league” – yes, you’ve guessed it – Paul Scholes. Playing football because that’s what he loved to do. Top man.

Three great moments

‘Ave some of that

Now that’s a volley


More goals and ridiculously great passes

What now?

He had a brief go at managing Oldham for seven games, but won only once and then quit amid allegations that owner Abdallah Lemsagam was meddling in first-team affairs. It has to be said that he is not someone who is obviously cut out for managerial success. Does he have the people and motivational skills needed? It doesn’t seem likely. Coaching seems a better option, though even now, he’d be better than anyone else in the squad. So a career in the TV studio being downbeat and miserable about Paul Pogba, seems his most likely option.

He’s co-owner of Salford City, of course, now in League Two and is a regular on BT Sport.

On August 3 he received a police caution after illegally holding a birthday party for his son while his area was in a local lockdown as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. Definitely a yellow card offence.

I do wonder if a younger generation of football fans look at him as some sort of relic of a long gone era. Asthematic kids like Scholes don’t seem to make it big in football any more, or if they do, they’ve been pampered in an academy since the age of eight; have an agent by 13; are millionaires by 18 and have an ego with its own postcode. Scholes belongs to an entirely different era and an entirely different culture. So much so that it is almost as though he is older than 45 and belongs more in the 60s than the 90s. Perhaps that is an indication of how much the game has changed in the last decade and a half.

One thing is for sure, even now, no-one is close to being the player Paul Scholes was. He stands alone. A peerless, epic player and a regular working class man.

John Nicholson

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