As the tabloid press swarmed over Ryan Giggs’s private life, the man who stood beside him for 17 years slipped out of the back door leaving an irreplaceable void in the centre of Manchester United’s midfield.
Paul Scholes has lit up the Premiership since 1994 and won 24 trophies in his 17-year career, including 10 league titles. Even for Scholes, notoriously a man of few words, surprisingly little fanfare and appreciation has accompanied his departure from the heart of the most dominant team in the English game. Even towards the end of last season, he refused to confirm his retirement to his teammates.
Sir Alex Ferguson has frequently referred to Scholes as his best player. Giving evidence in court on behalf of one of his former trainees, he listened to the prosecution barrister’s list of United’s top players and said: “You’ve missed Paul Scholes – and he’s my best player.”
Within United and among his illustrious peers such as Zidane and Xavi, he is constantly regarded as the best. That a player can remain so humble and introvert when subject to such praise is remarkable. As he disappears into the backrooms of Old Trafford, (he has been offered an as yet undecided role on the United coaching staff) it becomes evident that this is the end of an era.
At 25, I have watched Scholes dictate the tempo since I was 8, initially distracted by the mazy dribbling of Giggs, my appreciation gradually moved inside. There was Scholes, sitting between the centre circle and the opposition area, stretching the play, slowing it down, never making a mistake. He was the player every school coached wished they could have, a calming influence who took control and never relinquished possession. He was of course also known for his scything tackles, which were affectionately enjoyed because he was so good at everything else.
Revered by so many within the game, his separation of private life and on the field success was perhaps one his most impressive achievements. He was as good at maintaining space off the pitch as he was at exploiting it on the pitch. The manner of his retirement perfectly reflected the egoless attitude of his playing career.
After the revelations about Ryan Giggs’s private life it seems especially dangerous, (unfairly so), to claim that Scholes is a great family man but throughout his career there has been no evidence to suggest he had any interest in the trappings of wealth and success.
‘Train in the morning, pick up my children from school, play with them, have tea, put them to bed and then watch a bit of TV. That’s my ideal day.’
There is an admirable and consistent simplicity to every Paul Scholes interview. He talks quietly, gives straightforward answers, always looking slightly uneasy even after so many years at the top of the game. He still seems unwillingly thrown into the limelight.
He gives off an overwhelming sense of focus, rarely smiling, thinking only of his role in the team, the phrase ‘a great servant to the club’ seems tailor made for him. Such selflessness is no doubt a crucial mental aspect of his game.
Scholes epitomised quiet professionalism, a role model that Alex Ferguson points to in order to help ground his young stars. As Roy Keane observed, Scholes was “an amazingly gifted player who remained an unaffected human being.” A very rare breed in modern football.