There is a certain Paul Scholes shaped wound situated somewhere on the Three Lions that simply will not heal. It may have been inflicted over a series of years, but since the Manchester United legend’s international retirement some eight years ago now, it doesn’t seem to get any less painful.
They say time heals everything. For England, seeing Paul Scholes continue to produce the goods as he did against Wigan on Saturday, it just makes things worse.
Of course, you could be accused of smothering yourself in nostalgia by continuing to wheel out the Paul Scholes scenario. The year is 2012 and Scholes himself is now approaching his 38th birthday in November. England must be focusing on the next generation of talent and carving a squad capable of making real progress in Brazil 2014- should they qualify, of course.
But sometimes it is implausible to move forward, without looking back. Years of board level mismanagement, a crass neglect for the grass roots game and the odd bit of rotten luck along the way, have contributed in no small part to the 46 years of hurt and counting that the country currently finds itself enduring. But perhaps the tale of Paul Scholes’ international career represents the biggest sin of all.
Pep Guardiola described him as the best midfielder of his generation. Barcelona playmaker Xavi, once said that he was the best midfielder he’d seen play in the last two decades. Bobby Charlton, Alan Hansen, Marcelo Lippi – the list goes on forever – have all waxed lyrically about the ability of Salford-born genius over the years. But perhaps most poignantly, it was the more recent descriptions of one Robin van Persie, which really hit a particular chord.
“I have to say a big thank you to Paul Scholes. When he came on everything started ticking. Every single pass he hit was the right one. Everyone felt that, I certainly did,” the Dutchman said, following United’s 3-2 win over Southampton at the start of the month.
“He hit a couple of unbelievable passes over 30 metres. With him you are always on your toes because anything can happen with his qualities. For me, he is the man of the match.”
Let’s put that into perspective for one moment. The man fitting Van Persie’s description is 37 years of age. In the words of one of Europe’s finest strikers, who’s played with some half decent midfielders himself over the years, Scholes was depicted as the best player on the pitch. Not Michael Carrick, nor the fleeting young English talent he replaced either, in Tom Cleverley.
By Van Persie’s assessment and countless others, on his half hour cameo against Southampton, Scholes would walk, if not crawl on his hands and knees, into the Roy Hodgson’s current England line-up. But even though he’s now retired, you would have assumed that a player as praised, as talented, as gifted as Scholes, would be a legend for his country. Think of his peers and the 127 caps Luis Figo won for Portugal. Or the outstanding 108 that one Zinedine Zindane won for Les Bleus. Or even 117 and counting that Xavi has for Spain.
Paul Scholes played only 66 times for England. That’s only 13 more than Gareth Barry’s current total.
When Scholes initially retired from international competition in the August of 2004, there was a whole quarry of critique aimed at why the then 29-year-old would turn away from running out for England. But not necessarily whole-hearted uproar; owing much to the international emergence of both Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard. Criticism for Scholes was also, nothing particularly new.
Because for all his talents and gifts with the ball at his feet, the fascination was why he wasn’t putting the ball in the back of the net. Despite Scholes’ powers in front of goal perhaps already being in slight remission at this point, both the media and the management seemed displeased with a lack of goal scoring edge to his game internationally. It was felt the duo of Lampard and Gerrard could give the Three Lions what they needed. During the peak years of the Sven-Goran Eriksson era, he was always fit around the pair, not as a key component himself. A move that seems a fitting motif for both the failures of English football and the current predicament we currently find ourselves in.
The most gifted player of his generation in an England shirt – yet seemingly we were the only ones to recognise it. Nearly ten years on and still, the penny only now seems to have dropped. Although that’s pretty much the only thing that has dropped, as even after one short-lived retirement, Scholes performances show absolutely no signs of relenting.
Maybe he can’t play 38 games in a season anymore and it’s not likely he’ll undergo quite too many 90-minute lung-sapping shifts this season. But as he showed in his half hour cameo against Southampton, the class, the vision, the gift, is still there for all to see. The fact that he remains arguably one of the best English midfielders in the Premier League today is testament to this nations devaluation of the skillset he possess. We must ensure that the current emphasis on the technical aspects of the game, the ability to pass, control and move isn’t some flash in the pan.
The new multi-million pound St. Georges Park complex will be worth nothing, if say, barring injury both Jack Wilshere and Tom Cleverley fail to make more than 100 appearances for England between them. The coaching philosophies have to value the talents that both they and Scholes possess. The thought of say, Tom Cleverley being forced to play on the left so Ashley Young and squeeze in more centrally might not seem like much. But once upon a time it was Scholes shunted out of position for the more Hollywood players. History suggests that was one of the biggest mistakes in recent English footballing history.
Every time Scholes pulls on a United shirt and so effortlessly pulls the strings as he did against Southampton, part of an England fan’s soul will always hurt. But it must act as a burning reminder to ensure it doesn’t ever happen again. Otherwise it’s not just Brazil 2014 you can forget about.
How do you feel about Scholes’s recent performances and the state of England’s current midfield? Could it be possible that a similar scenario could happen again? Let me know what you think on Twitter: follow @samuel_antrobus and bat me all your views.