It was Sunday 8th January 2012. Manchester United were amid a midfield injury crisis and had a must-win FA Cup tie against noisy neighbours, Manchester City ahead. After already thrashing us 6-1 at Old Trafford earlier in the season, this match was vital to reassert ourselves in a now competitive rivalry.
In the build up to the latest edition to the Manchester Derby, rumblings started to come through about a squad pick so startling it matched the Benson and Hedges incident in the movie, Mike Bassett: England Manager.
Thirty-seven-year-old Paul Scholes was among the substitutes. The same Paul Scholes who had retired the previous season, with his powers visibly on the wane. Nevertheless, in the club’s hour of need – and suspicions of cost cutting by the club’s owners – Sir Alex Ferguson turned to the Ginger Prince to alleviate a crisis.
As much as it was damning indictment of the club’s transfer policy at the time, it is also testament to the brilliant second act on Scholes’ career that had come to a close at the end of the 2010/2011 season.
It is almost forgotten now, but of all of Fergie’s fledglings, Scholes seemed the odd man out for a time, acting as a backup to Eric Cantona and United’s first choice midfield pairing of Roy Keane and Nicky Butt.
Scholes, who came through with Phil Neville in the year junior to the ‘Class of ’92,’ broke into the first team regularly in the 1995/96 season. With Mark Hughes gone and Eric Cantona still suspended for heroically battering a racist, Scholes stepped into partner Andrew Cole in attack. Scoring a very respectable 14 goals as United became the first team to do the domestic “double-double” in English football.
However, it was not 1998 that Scholes became a first XI regular, replacing Keane in central midfield after he sustained a now infamous knee injury against Leeds United. This was where Scholes really began his legend, becoming a key cog in United’s Treble winning unit of 1999.
Not only would Scholes continue to use his excellent intelligence and positional play to score goals from midfield, but he could now show off his game management and incredible range and quality of passing. He also demonstrated he had the aggression and tenacity to not only survive but thrive amongst the testosterone fuelled fury of English midfield battlegrounds. People mock the trademark late Scholes “tackle” now, scything down an opposition player several seconds after the ball had gone, but that was a deliberate and calculated marker to remind his opposite number he was still there.
Scholes could and indeed did possess excellent ball winning skills and stamina and cemented his place was on of the best midfielders in the world, all despite his asthma and a chronic knee problem. The 2002/03 season was a personal best for Scholes, smashing in twenty goals, playing further forward as a number 10 behind Ruud Van Nistelrooy, with Juan Sebastian Veron coming into midfield. Indeed between 1997 and 2005, Scholes only failed to reach double figures in a season, once.
The second act on a glorious career came on the other side of a serious eye problem which many worried could see him off to early retirement. However, Scholes was ready for the second half of 2006, to help United win their first league title in 4 seasons.
Partnering the newly arrived Michael Carrick, Scholes became a deep-lying playmaker, dictating the tempo of he game. The 2006/7 season was another Scholes vintage, imperiously running matches from deep rather than scoring goals – although he still nabbed a trademark thunder-strike against Aston Villa – and was shortlisted for PFA Player of the year.
Despite injuries and suspensions curtailing appearances the next season, Scholes still had a major impact, hitting a rocket in the Champions League semi-final against Barcelona. Moreover, it offered the midfielder the chance to make up for missing the final in 1999. While he did not make it to the penalty shootout in Moscow against Chelsea, Scholes still played a major role in the final to win United and Ferguson, the second European Cup they had be starving for.
While he was crudely misused and overlooked by a national team setup that did not understand how to correctly utilize his talent, Scholes was venerated at Old Trafford and by his fellow professionals. The likes of Zinedine Zidane, Xavi, Edgar Davids and Thierry Henry – to name a few – all revered him as one of the best of his generation.
Over 700 appearances, 155 goals and twenty major trophies show it is an opinion that is impossible to argue with. He may well be underrated by those with insurmountable tribal bias, but to the faithful of Old Trafford, the Ginger Prince will never be dethroned.
Read More Icons of Old Trafford
Billy Meredith: “Superstar”
Sir Bobby Charlton: “The complete footballer”
George Best: “The Belfast Boy”
Denis Law: “The King”
Patrick O’Connell: “Don Patricio”
Martin Buchan: “Velocity”
Mark Hughes: “Sparky”
Tony Dunne: “The quiet man”
David Beckham: “Becks”