On the same day the English press went haywire over the FA’s demand for a postponement to the upcoming FIFA election over allegations of corruption, Manchester United and England legend Paul Scholes chose to quietly announce his retirement.
It was a typical Scholesean dodge. Throughout his career, Scholes has been used to having his name lumped in with the others—Cantona, Beckham, Giggs, Rooney—when the superlatives get rolled out by the press. Yet it’s rare to see him singled out for his achievements with United and England. He never had the vicious partisanship of Gary Neville, the on-again, off-again indiscipline of Rio Ferdinand, the (up until recently) saintly, working class image of Ryan Giggs. Toward the end of the career, he was more known for accruing yellow cards than anything else (he is the third most booked player in Premier League history).
Yet this is the same man whom Zinedine Zidane referred to as the “greatest midfielder of his generation.” The same player whom Thierry Henry cited as the “best player in the Premiership.” Xavi, already touted as the one of the best passers of the ball to have ever played the game of football, remarked of Paul Scholes in an interview with the Guardian’s Sid Lowe:
A role model. For me – and I really mean this – he’s the best central midfielder I’ve seen in the last 15, 20 years. I’ve spoken to Xabi Alonso about him. He’s spectacular, he has it all: the last pass, goals, he’s strong, he doesn’t lose the ball, vision. If he’d been Spanish he might have been rated more highly. Players love him.
Xavi’s pointed remark on Scholes’ nation of origin is key to understanding the scope of the midfielder’s career narrative. As the Run of Play’s Brian Phillips perceptively remarked this morning, “…Scholes was a great English player who seemed to have no effect on the way the rest of the English played football, even as his game contained the promise of total revolution.”
I think this is particularly important when considering Scholes’ England career. He was, sadly, among the most important players that the English national team managerial and coaching staff never actually quite knew what to do with. Scholes name is often mentioned among the players touted as part of England’s “golden generation,” which include the likes of Shearer, Beckham, Gerrard, and Lampard, Michael Owen. Yet because he was neither exclusively a central defender-type hard man, nor an attacking midfielder in the Gerrard mould, he never caught the imagination of an English tactical mindset still slowly evolving past the confines of a rigid 4-4-2.
The catchy tagline I could add here is that Scholes’ entire popular legacy hung on ten metres of space. Echoing his reserved personality—he remains intensely media-shy—Scholes was an expert at standing back, waiting, moving things along. His expertise as an incisive play maker peaked long before the Opta statisticians and chalkboard pundits were able to give concrete evidence of what football’s involved observers already knew. The man was an engine. Xavi is likely right; if Scholes had been born Spanish, they’d have built an entire midfield around him.
Yet “holding midfielders” or whatever you want to call him don’t make great YouTube highlight reels. If we were to rely on eye-catching visual clips alone for Scholes’ legacy, he’d be reduced to just another goal-scorer alongside a gang of incredible goal-scorers. Yet this is the Premier League vision of the sport that Scholes inherited, quietly worked his magic within, and, just as quietly said goodbye to.
It’s remarkable how in all the remarks on his retirement from colleagues and his own manager, he’s touted simply as a “great player.” That Scholes was and is much, much more than that is almost certain to be discussed by football fans in the years to come. That this realization did not come in the peak of his career is a mistake of history that English football may regret for a long, long time.