Scholes must not let praise risk his place at football’s top table

Green and gold may be the latest fad, but red is a colour that has always been held in the highest regard by Manchester United fans. Just recently, the hoards at Old  Trafford have been joined in their love of the colour by neutrals and journalists alike. The reason? Paul Scholes.

Born again at 35 after a summer wisely spent away from the Rainbow Nation, Scholes has been simply faultless in Manchester United’s first meaningful games of the season. In fact, his performances against Chelsea and Newcastle in Community Shield and Premier League respectively have caused many to believe that Fabio Capello made a catastrophic mistake in not making a more personal effort to lure him out of international retirement to take part in England’s ill-fated campaign in South Africa.

There is no doubt that the man affectionately nicknamed the ‘Ginger Ninja’ by some sections of the media remains a phenomenal talent. Two assists against Newcastle demonstrated that even in his twilight years, Scholes’ footballing brain is still as sharp as ever, while his passing game appears to have developed as he has dropped into a deeper midfield role. While he no longer has the engine to burst forward to join attacks – he would probably be happy with five goals this season – Scholes does possess the ability to receive a football and land it on a sixpence, a feat that seems particularly impressive in a league where so many rely on fitness and strength over technical prowess.

However, despite Scholes’ stunning performance at Wembley and his subsequent masterclass at Old Trafford on Monday, there remains a nagging sense that he does not have long left at this level. The feeling may be justified, despite the man himself claiming on Wednesday that he will ‘just keep going’ for the foreseeable future.

This, after all, is the same Paul Scholes who was so below par at times last season as United saw their Premier League crown snatched by Chelsea. In a disappointing season his performance at Craven Cottage, where he was directly at fault for at least one goal as United were humbled 3-0 by Fulham, sticks in the mind as particularly poor. Scholes was roundly criticised, and one top journalist in a prestigious British daily (who shall remain nameless) even claimed in his match report that it had disappointed him to see such an illustrious player being so obviously exposed as ‘past it’.

At the end of the season, even Scholes himself seemed to accept that the end was near. In an interview in June he claimed he had ‘maybe… one year left’ and at the time, with United fans dreaming of big-name summer signings, the remarks hardly caused great alarm.

However, with supposed target Mesut Özil having joined Real Madrid and the relatively unknown Bébé the only midfield arrival at the Theatre of Dreams this summer, Scholes again appears set to play a central role in United’s challenge for the Premiership and Champions League. So, is he still up to the task?

Scholes’ performances this season have been impressive and he remains a phenomenally talented footballer. However, how much can we really read into displays against a clearly unfit Chelsea side and a Newcastle team who resembled scared rabbits in the headlights during their first game back in the promised land? Would Scholes be given so much space and time to orchestrate United’s midfield play against a fully-fit Chelsea, Barcelona or Internazionale in May? No. He would have been hassled and pressured and as he demonstrated last season, Scholes no longer responds well to such conditions.

If a player wants to be remembered as great, it pays to know when to go out. Zidane’s last game was a World Cup final and he will be remembered as the greatest player since Maradona until Messi, Ronaldo or some other surpasses him. Scholes can be remembered in a similar bracket. He remains supremely talented, but the flaws in his game that were there last season have not gone away. After all, despite the hyperbolic  claims of many ill-informed observers, players rarely improve with age. In fact reduced fitness, less playing time and a slowing of reactions tend to have the opposite effect on the modern day footballer.

If Scholes desires greatness, he must ignore the media and listen only to his body. In June he claimed he only had one season left. If he has any sense, nothing will have changed. All that remains is to make it a season to remember and then walk away from Old Trafford with his clutch of medals. Only that will cement his position as a true maestro of the modern game.

Written By Gareth Roberts

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