Another aging midfielder made way the same evening to even more sustained, but by no means unusual, applause. In the eyes of United fans, and association football followers in general, there’s no mistaking which of their legends has greater longevity and, moreover, substance.
That of Paul Scholes.
While Beckham would seem guaranteed a knighthood, as much for his statesmanlike lobbying roles as his soccer skills, "You rarely come across the complete footballer, but Scholes is as close to it as you can get."
Who says so? Zinedine Zidane, no less.
Scholes remains a key figure in Alex Ferguson’s latest side. Still an inspirational, ever-modest presence, he is approaching 160 competitive goals in an 18-year, one-club career.
Four years ago, while pondering the future, Scholes told British journalist Greig Thomas: “I’m looking forward to finishing and everything that goes with it. The only thing I will definitely miss is the football,” he conceded.
Scholes has always conveyed total disinterest in the fame that goes with winning—so far—10 Premier League titles, three FA Cups, two League Cups and a couple of Champions Leagues.
There were also 66 England caps and 14 goals—the "Ginger Genius" having quit the international scene more than eight years ago. While it has no doubt benefited his club, Scholes’s decision, at the age of just 29, was almost certainly connected to his state of mind, rather than his physical well-being.
Sven-Goran Eriksson’s star-struck style of management is assumed to have been a factor. Plus, Scholes was routinely played out of position to facilitate the undisputed but incompatible individual talents of Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard in the centre of midfield.
So much for Thierry Henry’s assertion: “Without any doubt the best player in the Premiership has to be Scholes ... He knows how to do everything.” Or the late George Best’s insistence at the time: “England have lost their best player.”
Someone of Scholes’s shy and retiring nature (it’s almost startling to hear his voice when interviewed) would have hated almost everything about the England set-up, including, of course, the WAGs.
Which is probably one of the reasons why Ferguson thinks the world of this consummate, hardworking family man; he cajoled Scholes out of retirement in January in the knowledge that no one, yet, is capable of filling his brilliant boots.
Singled out by Robin van Persie for changing the game against Southampton, Scholes’ recent goal at home against Wigan marked not just his 700th United appearance, but the 19th consecutive Premier League season in which he has scored.
Remarkable. Though it’s his instinctive touch and vision that most sets him apart.
Yet this is a player who’s never had an agent, nor haggled over a contract.
“No celebrity bullshit ... just an amazingly gifted player who has remained an unaffected human being,” as his old sidekick, Roy Keane, put it.
Whom would you rate more highly as a player?
Another former Manchester United and Ireland midfielder, John Giles, feels Scholes’s calm creativity (whatever about his tackling) has never been replaced by his country. Not that most commentators even realize it.
Foreigners certainly do—albeit not the sort who vote for the World and European Players of the Year on the basis of headlines and highlights. For instance, Beckham has twice been FIFA runner-up (1999, 2001). Scholes, like Keane, was never in the reckoning.
Hardly one to make a fuss, at least Scholes receives universal respect from his peers. Xavi, the Barcelona and Spain playmaker, regards him as “a role model. For me, and I really mean this, he’s the best central midfielder I’ve seen in the last 15, 20 years … If he’d been Spanish he might have been rated more highly. Players love him.”
Everyone who properly appreciates the beautiful game—or, as Giles says, can differentiate between ability and celebrity—rightly regards Scholes as the real deal. Beckham, on the other hand, even at his best, was merely a very good player, capable of spectacular moments.
From Manchester to Madrid, LA to Milan, the latter’s iconic brand may be thriving still. But a player of Scholes’s low-key, consistently world-class quality, has proved priceless.