'Scholes' return was one of my happiest days as a Red'

Saturday 08 January 2022 08:59

If ever I'm struggling to define just what Paul Scholes meant to me, or just how good he was, I simply remember how I felt on Sunday 8 January 2012.

That day, I woke and eased out of bed, and psyched myself up for the 162nd Manchester derby. 
 
United and City were already pummelling each other to bits in the race for the league title, so there was quite the commotion when the Reds and Blues came out of the hat together in the draw for the FA Cup third round.
 
Derbies are always exciting, and were especially so during the 2008-13 period, as an Abu Dhabi-powered City finally began to creep out of a decades-long stint in the competitive wilderness.
 
But there was something else that morning: whispers of Paul Scholes; of a remarkable return from retirement.
Third-Round Classic: City 2 United 3 Video

Third-Round Classic: City 2 United 3

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And then there it was: in the morning papers, across the sports channels, on social media. And when the teams were announced at midday, there he was: Paul Scholes, number 22, among the substitutes. All set for United appearance no. 677. Apparently, even the other players didn't know he was coming back until they saw his shirt pinned up in the dressing room at the Etihad.
 
I'll admit it now: I was giddy. Buzzing. Use whatever excitable adjective you want. The derby had nothing to do with it, to be quite honest – I was just overwhelmed that arguably my favourite United player of all had a little bit more left in the tank.
 
Only one Red rivals Scholesy in my affections: Eric Cantona. And Le Roi had retired back in 1997, when I was just 10. He was the man that got me into football, into United, but Scholes was the player that gave me more pleasure than any other.
 
I'd watched almost his entire career up close. My first United game was Barcelona at home in October 1994. That was Scholesy's fifth first-team appearance. He'd go on to make 718, and I watched near enough the lot. And hundreds of them in the flesh.
 
He was local, too. I grew up in Blackley, just a couple of miles from Middleton, where he'd grown up. I'd even sat next to his mum and dad in the pub a few times, when they'd come in to watch United games.
In 2012, it didn't matter to me that he was slowing down – his most valuable asset had always been his brain. You could watch Scholes play five-a-side in 20 years' time and still come away feeling enriched.
 
I vividly remember going to his testimonial in the summer of 2011. As I sat there and watched him ping the ball around effortlessly, and score a wonderful goal, a thought kept nagging at me: 'This shouldn't be the end. Surely this man is too good to stop playing professional football at the highest level?'
 
Fast-forward five months and he was back out there. The game would have been memorable without him, but his return as a second-half substitute was the icing on the cake for United fans.
 
United took an early lead through a Wayne Rooney header. Fantastic. Vincent Kompany was then sent off for a reckless challenge on Nani. Lovely. By half-time, it was 3-0 to the Reds, and the tie looked done and dusted.
 
The Blues fought back instantly when the second half began, via Aleksandar Kolarov's free-kick but, just before the hour mark, the exultant moment arrived: on came Scholesy, to replace Nani.

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He was rusty, admittedly, but within a few minutes he was back into the old rhythms. Sneaking the ball around City's midfielders, sweeping it across the field with unfathomable ease.
 
He did give the ball away, however. And one occasion was costly, allowing a City attack that resulted in their second goal with some 25 minutes remaining.
 
But United saw the game out, and a glorious afternoon stretched out ahead of Reds everywhere. Get the Sunday lunch on, chill the beers – Scholesy's back and City are out of the Cup.
 
His career would endure for another 15 months, and would finish with the lifting of an 11th Premier League title. There were some great performances that I remember fondly – against Fulham and QPR, in particular – but, really, his entire comeback was just a pleasure.
 
You'll hear Paul say he knew he was goosed and his time was coming to a close soon after he came out of retirement but, for many supporters, it didn't matter.
 
He wanted to be at 100 per cent, to play and run and tackle and compete like the Paul Scholes of 1999 or 2003, but nothing lasts forever. For those of us in the stands, that unique second act to his career was simply one glorious treat; one that we treasured all the more for knowing the end was nigh.

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That said, in 2022, as an unashamed Paul Scholes fanatic, I'll admit that I do sometimes worry about his legacy.

Everyone that regularly watched the Ginger Prince play for United between 1994 and 2013 remembers what he was: one of the most delightful footballers to ever play the game.

But if you're a youngster that doesn't remember him dinking the ball artfully round Old Trafford for year after year, maybe you only know Scholes as the gruff, hard-to-impress TV pundit.

Maybe you think about him through the prism of those tedious, daily Twitter 'debates', where he's compared to Steven Gerrard/Kevin De Bruyne/insert the latest flavour of the month here, via a load of stats that spectacularly miss the point.

The truth is that the glory of Scholes wasn't about assist numbers or how many times he was named in the PFA Team of the Year. Even the famous goals you see trotted out on TV and Twitter don't tell you the whole story.

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The magic was in his bravery and his imagination, and how do you measure those?
He always, always wanted the ball, and he always, always did something useful with it. Often, he did things that were more than useful. Sometimes, they were staggeringly, breathtakingly imaginative.
 
But watching him whirl around the pitch, abuzz with ideas, was always engrossing, always inspiring. I couldn't believe that he played for my team, and came from just a few miles away from where I did.
 
So when the chance came to watch him for that little bit longer... well, forgive me for getting a little carried away. 
 
On grey, drizzly Manchester days like 8 January 2012, it takes a magnificent footballer to make life feel sublime. And Paul Scholes rarely failed on that front.

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