He was dubbed the greatest midfielder of his generation by a player considered to be one of the best to grace planet Earth. Such glowing praise from a football luminary like Zinedine Zidane is only afforded to uniquely exceptional individuals.
In that case Paul Scholes is the physical embodiment of exceptional. It comes as no surprise that Zidane views the Manchester United legend as ‘the complete footballer’ and regrets never having the chance to play with the him. To be honest who wouldn’t?
For just under two decades he has been the cornerstone of the Red Devils’ unprecedented success during the Premier League era. It is incredible to think it all started for the now 37-year-old on an autumnal evening at Vale Park in September 1994 just two months short of his 20th birthday.
A League Cup tie at the home of old Division One side Port Vale was the first step on the way to stardom for a tenacious young midfielder. Many an eyelid remained un-batted at the teenager wearing number 10 on his back prior to kick off. By the time the final whistle blown his name was on everyone’s lips in the aftermath of a devastating display. As debuts go it couldn’t have gone any better if he had dreamt it.
Two uncharacteristic poachers’ goals, the first a near-post header followed by an intelligent dinked finish over the goalkeeper, marked the launch of one of English football’s most admired players. 18 years on, the story reads 703 games, 155 goals and countless accolades as Scholes continues to write new chapters in his incredible career.
Many in attendance that night would have been blissfully unaware that they were witnessing the birth of a player who would become indispensable to club and country. In the early part of his career finding the net was second nature to Scholes as he quickly earned himself a reputation for spectacular long-range goals.
That volley away at Bradford City in 2000 is often the first attached to any Scholes highlight reel and serves to illustrate the extraordinary talent stored inside his 5ft 7in frame. The balance, poise, concentration and pureness of the connection saw the ball fizz through a crowd of players and nestle in the bottom corner. It was definitely a ‘had to be there’ moment.
But those trademark goals weren’t Scholes’ only on-field currency. Only when his name became a rarity on the score sheet as he approached his mid-thirties did people start to take notice of his all-round game. An incredible range of passing, sniper-like vision and immaculate positioning became prevalent talking points with youngsters urged to study his movement, ball control and body shape both in and out of possession. It’s a free tutorial for any aspiring midfielder.
It’s hardly surprising that his trophy cabinet contains 10 Premier League winner’s medals, three FA Cups, two League Cups and two Champions Leagues. Just rewards, you might say, for a player of supreme ability and, more importantly, a humble human being.
Scholes is one of a minority not to employ an agent to oversee the business side of his career. Nor has he ever indulged in his time in the spotlight, taken advantage of his position as footballer or had his name splashed across the front page of newspapers. It’s the back page where he has always belonged and it fittingly mirrors the quiet, almost withdrawn, life he leads away from the field.
But in that respect he is the definitive role model for today’s youth, setting a benchmark for professionalism on and off the field. His conditioning and devotion to staying in peak shape has prolonged a career that will continue past his 38th birthday.
The sparkling worship received from Zidane, Bobby Charlton and Xavi only serves to justify the eminent opinion of his fellow contemporaries. Believe me you would have to delve deep into the football history books to find someone as widely revered as Scholes.
Still, it’s hard to believe that the flame-haired teenager that took to the field for the first time on a cold night at Vale Park would go on to become one of the modern era’s greatest players. When he finally does close the book on an incredible career there will be plenty to look back on. Thankfully the final few pages have yet to be written.