Sometimes when a player leaves the game—the very top of the game—it is pertinent to question whether the decision was rash. Surely he had another season in him?
In the majority of circumstances, these questions remain rhetorical. Retirement normally is thus, an end of a career, the passing of the guard. However, Paul Scholes has returned to his beloved Manchester United. With the team seemingly castrated in its central midfield positions without him, the Ginger Prince rode in on his stead to save the day.
The return of the Carrington academies' second most decorated pupil would, in so doing, negate a palpable sense of frustration that was beginning to taint even the most ardent of fan. Manchester United and Sir Alex Ferguson had done the impossible and cemented their bid for another concerted raid on the Premiership trophy that was more or less becoming furniture in the Theatre of Dreams.
Sir Alex's faith in his protégé hadn't wavered with his absence. Scholes was rushed onto the squad for the FA Cup third round tie at archrivals City the same day his comeback was announced. And so, with half an hour to go, the moment many a man fantasised about in the long five months of the pre-Scholes era was realised as the quiet man re-debuted.
It should have been a masterstroke by Ferguson. Scholes—the terrace hero, the fans' favourite and the man who Zinedine Zidane once called "the best of his generation"—came to remedy a midfield deficiency that looked set to cripple the Champions League Season.
And yet, from the start, something was amiss. To be honest, if we were to think rationally without the inevitable emotional attachment, how couldn't it be? Scholes, removed from the action for the past five months in his capacity as a coach at the club, looked shorn of pace and behind the play.
Paul Scholes, contrary to the script of his glorious United career, looked fallible. Indeed, although United scraped a win from that match from a position of supreme comfort, it was Scholes' lax pass that allowed Sergio Aguero to score the bums-on-seats second for City.
Again, yesterday Ferguson persisted with his former general, and the headlines will have you believe that Scholes has re-paid his manager's faith after scoring on only his second appearance. Yet the headlines barely tell the story. Apart from his tap-in goal at the far post, which owed far more to positional awareness, Scholes lacked top-flight pace, just like he did the week before.
Now don’t get me wrong, I am as delighted as the next man to have the honour of viewing one of the most precocious talents I have had the pleasure of witnessing during my football patronage, for an unexpected six months. My reticence stems from my perception of what the return means for United and their title ambitions.
For all intents and purposes, Ferguson is lauding Scholes as ’the answer’ to the lack of creativity in United’s middle that has forced the gaffer to utilise Wayne Rooney in the berth. A 36-year-old fresh out of retirement, no matter how good he undoubtedly was, is highly doubtfully a sustainable ‘answer.' Paul Scholes is a remedy to appease the fans, a façade that in terms of United’s season will change little.
At the moment rumours are circulating in the press about the serious possibility of Manchester United losing two of their brightest youth prospects when their contracts are up at the end of the season. The positions of Ravel Morrison and Paul Pogba? Central midfield, the current berth that Paul Scholes, at double the duo’s age, is ‘the answer’.
Now I understand the serious financial constraints surrounding Sir Alex’s purse strings, but a concerted decision to give youth a chance—a chance Scholes himself was once afforded—would surely do more good than harm.
Yet Scholes, at 36, will struggle to recover the casual excellence he once took for granted. And all the while Pogba and Morrison, quite possibly two of the best midfielders to come through the academy since Scholes himself, will naturally look for first-team opportunities elsewhere.
Sentimentally speaking, Paul Scholes’ return is a masterstroke by Ferguson and will create a hugely positive air around the Manchester United first team. Yet if he persists with the idea that Scholes can create a sufficient impression on United’s season to warrant a consistent starting berth, it could create more harm than good.
Paul Pogba and Ravel Morrison won't wait forever for Sir Alex to realise that Paul Scholes is no longer the answer.