11 June ~ The news that Paul Scholes is retiring has been greeted with some unprecedented hyperbole. By the sound of the plaudits you would think he was some kind of footballing god who compared with the likes of George Best or Diego Maradona. Scholes was undoubtedly a very fine player in his prime: nimble, intelligent, accurate of pass and deadly in front of goal. But in recent years this once gifted footballer has been living off his reputation. He has been nursed through games by younger, fitter team-mates, and granted a level of loyalty by his otherwise ruthless manager that bordered on indulgence.
Sir Alex Ferguson's favouritism was not repaid with performances. The goals dried up, he was constantly caught in possession and the tackles became ever later and higher. In spite of this, the legend of Scholes has actually grown during these leaner times, enhanced no doubt by his longevity and a few more championship medals. His status as the finest English midfielder of his generation is now assured. It must be so because that's what everyone in the game keeps telling us.
Curiously, Scholes wasn't rated so highly at his peak. Most commentators considered Roy Keane more influential, with Scholes on a par with Ryan Giggs and David Beckham. At international level no one ranked him above Paul Gascoigne and there weren't too many protests when he lost his central midfield position to Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard. I wonder how Lampard and Gerrard feel now when told they are not in his class. Scholes probably had the edge in basic technique over these two (even if he was embarrassingly one-footed) and he seldom disappeared from games as is Lampard's wont. But when it comes to goalscoring, the Chelsea player is well ahead.
When you factor in work-rate, energy, pace, the ability to lead and inspire others, along with ball-winning potential – all vital components of the modern midfielder – Gerrard is your man. It is rarely taken into account when judging the merits of players, but it is much easier to shine when you play for the best team in the country. You have more possession, more time on the ball and more opportunities to score. Would Scholes be spoken about in such exalted tones if he had played in a Liverpool shirt?
In recent years Scholes, like Giggs, has lost his pace and sacrificed his attacking instincts for steadiness and nous in the middle of the park. Had he been able to tackle, Scholes could have made the transition into a holding midfielder. But this old failing was amplified further by the passing of time, as even his greatest fans acknowledge with a wry smile and a shake of the head. Keane at least was honest enough in his appraisal of Scholes to describe him as "nasty", even if he meant it as a compliment. For some reason he doesn't have this reputation in the game at large. Other players – Keane included – would have been condemned for the challenges Scholes made. It is remarkable what you can get away with if you are modest, quiet and shy. Perhaps, in a profession packed full of overblown egos, more should take note.
Scholes should have hung up his boots a few years ago, but as he heads off into the sunset I wish him well and applaud a great career, while remaining wary and weary of all the overblown tributes. He will stand high in the pantheon of Old Trafford stars, but if a fair judgment is applied, his name will be alongside the likes of Denis Law, Bryan Robson, Roy Keane and Ryan Giggs, but below the true United greats of George Best, Bobby Charlton and Eric Cantona. Stephen Griffiths