“My toughest opponent? Scholes of Manchester. He is the complete midfielder. Scholes is undoubtedly the greatest midfielder of his generation.”
If anyone knows a top-class midfielder when he sees one, it's Zinédine Zidane. The fact that the Real Madrid and France legend talks so glowingly of Paul Scholes speaks volumes about how the former Manchester United and England playmaker is viewed within the game: a real footballer's footballer.
Never one to bang his own drum, quiet and unassuming as he was throughout his career, Scholes' flawless technique and ability to bend any game to his will was such that others did his campaigning for him.
Zidane was not the only pre-eminent pass master to recognise Scholes' talent and gush about his multifarious skill set. Indeed, Barcelona hero Xavi is another huge fan of the diminutive Salford-born midfielder.
“In the last 15 to 20 years the best central midfielder that I have seen — the most complete — is Scholes. I have spoken with Xabi Alonso about this many times. Scholes is a spectacular player who has everything.”
Edgar Davids, Cesc Fàbregas and Brazilian great Sócrates have also expressed similar sentiments about Scholes over the years, while former team-mate Ryan Giggs regards the 66-cap former England man as United's greatest ever player, the Welshman insisting he has “seen him do things that no other player can do”.
Seldom has a footballer – especially one who rarely figured in the running for individual awards, and was certainly never deemed a Ballon d'Or contender in his time – been so widely respected and revered by his contemporaries. For all his shirking of the limelight, his selfless teamwork and humility, for all that he didn't want to stand out, Scholes, through his unrivalled mastery of the ball, absolutely stood out.
Scholes has retrospectively and somewhat erroneously been packaged as a member of United's vaunted “Class of '92”, alongside the likes of Giggs, Gary Neville, David Beckham and Nicky Butt, but he didn't actually kick a ball in the Red Devils' youngsters' run to lift the FA Youth Cup that year. He did, however, star for the Old Trafford youth side as they reached the final of the competition the following season, playing alongside Phil Neville and being voted the club's Young Player of the Year for the 1992/93 campaign. Professional forms and a first-team debut followed shortly after.
Although most remember Scholes as a kind of deep-lying playmaker in central midfield, he began his football journey much further forward, and underwent a gradual transition from striker, to goal-scoring attacking midfielder, to a deeper, orchestrating role, adjusting with the expansion of his attributes, the needs of the team, and the effects of time.
A regular feature of the United line-up from the 1994/95 season, Scholes was a key member of several distinct generations of Sir Alex Ferguson's side. He began as one of “Fergie's Fledglings”, the cabal of young hopefuls juxtaposed with the likes of Eric Cantona and Peter Schmeichel to defy expectations and lay the foundations for an era of domestic dominance. At this time, Scholes' game was very much focussed around his attacking talents, debuting as a striker in a League Cup tie against Port Vale in 1994, his clean ball-striking technique and savvy link play saw him excel.
As Ferguson's men reached their Treble-winning peak in 1999, Scholes had become the central-midfield partner of Roy Keane, offering goal threat, crisp forward passing and a knack for finding space in and around the penalty area, complementing the Irishman's drive, hard tackling and uncompromising leadership. Although suspension precluded the pair's involvement in the Champions League final against Bayern Munich that season, their tandem midfield force was the bedrock upon which United‘s conquering of the continent was built.
Scholes returned double figures for goals in eight of his first ten season in the United first team, peaking with a 20-goal haul in 2002/03. Many of his strikes were truly spectacular, too, such as the top-corner missiles from distance against Middlesbrough, Chelsea and Everton, the delicate 20-yard chip against Panathinaikos in the Champions League and, of course, the unforgettable volley from a a corner kick against Bradford City in 2000.
However, after peaking in 2003, the goals began to dry up for Scholes – his highest subsequent single-season return was seven – signifying the point at which his role within the side reached the next phase of its evolution. With Cristiano Ronaldo on the scene and Ruud van Nistelrooy and Louis Saha prolific up front, the Englishman began to focus more on supporting and creating, developing into arguably the finest dictator of tempo the Premier League has seen.
He could still come up with the odd awe-inspiring strike, though, including the stunning 25-yard, in-off-the-bar volley against Aston Villa in 2006 – the goal he considers the best of his career – and the inch-perfect rocket from well outside the penalty area against Barcelona in 2008, firing United into the Champions League final.
The Red Devils met Chelsea in the continental showpiece that year; this time Scholes played. The Old Trafford side triumphed on penalties in Moscow, earning the then-33-year-old his second Champions League winners' medal – although he only considers himself a one-time winner of the prestigious competition, having played no part in the '99 final.
Scholes announced his retirement from football, with immediate effect, in May 2011. But the pull of the game proved too strong for a player who still felt he could contribute, and he was coaxed back into action in January 2012, playing on for 18 months and taking his Premier League titles tally to 11 before walking off into the sunset, alongside Ferguson, in 2013.
A career that spanned 20 seasons and brought 20 major trophies cannot be considered unfulfilled. But if there is one aspect of Scholes' playing days that he might look back upon and be tinged with regret, it is his international career. His first 16 England caps yielded seven goals, but he would only score seven more times in his next 50 Three Lions outings, before retiring from the international stage in 2004.
By that point, Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard had emerged as the bright new things of the England midfield, and then-manager Sven-Göran Eriksson pushed Scholes out to the left wing to accommodate the younger duo. Many have since lamented the decision, cursing England's inability to maximise the gifts of their most technically gifted midfielder of the last two decades, but Scholes himself harbours no ill-feeling towards the Swedish coach.
“A lot of people said that and blamed Sven for me quitting England,” he told FourFourTwo earlier this year, “but the truth is I played on the wing for Man United too and scored a lot of goals. But it didn’t work out like that for England. I’m not sure why. The truth is I got on great with Sven. I don’t think there’s anyone who didn’t – we all loved playing for him.
“He put me in that position because he thought Frank and Steven were better suited to playing in the middle than me. It was his choice, and it wasn’t my business to tell him where I should play. He thought they were better than me.”
Ahead of the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, Fabio Capello attempted to lure Scholes, at the age of 35, back to Three Lions duty, and the United legend has admitted he was tempted. But he instead elected to stay home and spend the summer with his family, forgoing the chance for a more positive bookend to his England career.
If he was never fully appreciated in an England shirt, he was adored inside Old Trafford – even if he was a boyhood Oldham fan who cheered the Latics on from the stands at Maine Road when they took on United in the 1990 FA Cup semi-finals. Respected by everyone he worked with, Ferguson would even use Scholes as a sounding board, consulting the experienced midfielder on key decisions, such as what to do with van Nistelrooy when the Dutchman had become a disruptive influence in 2006 (“Sell him”, came the straight-laced reply), trusting that there was no pretence to anything he ever did and knowing an honest answer was guaranteed.
Often characterised as serious and unengaging, Scholes would employ his superlative technical ability to humorous effect on the training field. Any team-mates who dared wonder towards the bushes to relieve themselves during practice would do so cringing in anticipation of a pinged, laser-guided ball clattering the back of their head from the midfielder's boot.
“I do remember I once hit Phil [Neville] from distance with a cracker right on the head,” he recalls. “It sent him flying – it was hilarious!” Although the gaffer was always off limits: “I wouldn’t go for the manager, but I might hit one just by the side of him to try to wake him up. I wasn’t stupid enough to aim directly at his head.”
Revered by those who saw him play, lauded by those who played with him, and respected by anyone he came up against, Scholes was the midfielder who could do it all – except tackle, maybe. Scorer, creator, conductor: whatever role he assumed, he excelled.
Arguably the finest English midfielder of his generation, Scholes was also, paradoxically, the least English-style player the country has produced in decades, his attributes more synonymous with the stars of Brazil's 1982 side, or Spain's 2010 world champions.
As the Old Trafford song penned in his honour goes: “He scores goals galore”, but Scholes also did so much more, and always to near perfection.