May 31st, the day he was due to leave the country to go on holiday with his family, Paul Scholes announced his retirement from football. While the football community reflected on the career of an exceptional talent, Scholes characteristically was far away from the limelight.
It also represented a move closer to the end of the famed “Class of ’92″, Fergie’s Fledglings, a generation of youth academy players that have achieved spectacular success.
Added to Gary Neville’s retirement earlier this season, Scholes’ decision leaves just Ryan Giggs and Phil Neville playing top level football. That’s not to say that fans haven’t had their money’s worth – all of the players have enjoyed great longevity, broken nearly all English records and notched up over 400 international games between them.
Rumours of their abilities preceded them. Ryan Giggs was the first to emerge, touted very early on as “the new George Best”, the Welsh Wizard tore apart defences with superb close control at pace and a weaving style that left defenders picking themselves up off the pitch as Giggs tested their balance.
Butt and Gary Neville came in as understudies to the likes of Irwin, Parker, Ince and Keane, getting games in a more low-key introduction to a Manchester United team being led to a resurgence of former greatness by Alex Ferguson. What they lacked in flair they made up in terms of commitment, work-rate and, most importantly, reliability.
Nicky Butt had the hardest task, competing with Roy Keane for defensive duties in the centre of the park, he nevertheless learned well and became a key figure for England in the 2002 World Cup, culminating in Pele praising him as the best player in the competition at the point England met Brazil in the Quarter-Final.
The competition for places ultimately saw Butt seek more opportunities in the black and white of Newcastle, leaving Manchester in 2004.
Gary and Phil became the first brothers to play alongside each other for England since Bobby and Jack Charlton. Phil’s international career made tougher by more competition for his favoured left-back slot than Gary had on the opposite flank.
Initially, Phil was seen as the greater of the two talents. There was a curious season where Gary was being picked for England ahead of Phil, whilst the 19 year old kept 21 year old Gary out of the team at Old Trafford.
One of Gary’s greatest assets was his determination and focus however. He cut mistakes out of his game, the sort of mistakes that cost Phil for both club and country, infamously giving away a last minute penalty to Romania in Euro 2000. It cost England a place in the quarter-finals.
Gary went on to win 85 caps for England, more than any other full back. Phil Neville moved to Everton in 2005 becoming club captain.
David Beckham was the next to breakthrough, his goal against Galatasaray on his Champions League debut showing a flicker of what was to come. A winner of the Bobby Charlton’s Soccer Skills competition, Beckham was another that was talked about before he came into the senior team – those in the know speaking of him being the player with the best technique at the club.
His goal of the season from the halfway line versus Wimbledon (on the first day of the season) blasted Beckham into the limelight and made him a household name overnight.
John Motson’s famous commentary declared that Beckham was “surely an England player of the future”. How right he was. Beckham went on to beat Bobby Charlton’s record for the most caps by an outfield player, only Peter Shilton recorded more than Beckham’s 115.
Paul Scholes and Phil Neville slipped into a side that had sacrificed previous stalwarts such as Mark Hughes, Paul Ince and Andrei Kanchelskis as Ferguson put faith in his prodigious players.
The first game of the 1995-96 season saw this youthful line-up get easily beaten 3-1 by Aston Villa, a performance that prompted Alan Hansen to declare “you’ll never win anything with kids”. Man Utd finished that season winning the double and the team went on to become more decorated than the legendary Busby Babes of the 60s.
Paul Scholes’ retirement has drawn the curtain on a career that may not even have got going. Scholes was a small kid with asthma when he came to United and it took careful handling by the club to balance his health with appearances for the club. Still, a 16 year club career with nearly 700 games for United and 66 for England is a fantastic output by any standards. On the pitch, Scholes was in a class of his own.
Heralded by no less a luminary than Zinedine ‘Zizou’ Zidane as “undoubtedly the greatest midfielder of his generation”, the unassuming Salford lad was known by his team-mates as “Sat Nav” for his precision passing.
Xavi Hernandez said “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.
“He can play the final pass, he can score, he is strong, he never gets knocked off the ball and he doesn’t give possession away. If he had been Spanish then maybe he would have been valued more.”
Laurent Blanc: “I tell anyone who asks me — Scholes is the best English player.”
Marcello Lippi: “Paul Scholes would have been one of my first choices for putting together a great team — that is how highly I have always rated him.”
Pep Guardiola: “Out of everyone at Manchester United, I would pick out Scholes – he is the best midfielder of his generation.”
A phenomenal talent that managed to duck under the radar of both opponents’ awareness and media attention, an ability to vanish from the spotlight that saw him referred to as Caspar, after the animated friendly ghost.
A shame then that his talent wasn’t leveraged by an England national side that so needed his vision and creativity. Indeed, he was marginalised because he was so good – played out on the left because he could perform there better than anybody else from the squad.
It was a case of fitting square pegs in round holes, choosing the 11 best players and trying to extract a team from them. It was not a successful approach and Scholes cut short his international career to focus on his club, where he was utilised better and saw improved returns on his endeavours.
Gary and Paul’s retirements are reminiscent of the break-up and fade aways of The Beatles, the end of an era. A group so talented, their existence something magical.
Will we see a generation of players like this at one club again? Probably not for a while…
By Stephen – Manchester United fan – @FootballAlchemy