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Sunday 31 August 2014

Paul Scholes emerges as unlikely star as new Manchester United film is revealed

Jonathan Liew

Published 15/11/2013 | 09:16

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The Manchester United team following their victory in the 1992 FA Youth Cup final
As Manchester United captain ahead of the FA Youth Cup final against Crystal Palace in April 1992 at Old Trafford

Although The Class of 92 pitches itself as a reasonably straightforward football documentary, in many ways it sits firmly in the time-honoured canon of the Hollywood buddy movie.

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It is less about football than it is about friendship; the friends David Beckham, Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes, Gary Neville, Phil Neville and Nicky Butt reuniting to discuss their journey from the Manchester United youth team of the early 1990s to the Treble-winning triumph of the Nou Camp.

Certainly film-makers Gabe and Ben Turner could scarcely have wished for a more compelling cast of characters. There is no narrator and no script; none are required, for there is a natural, loquacious chemistry to the six leads that is impossible to confect. The memories come thick and fast; the anecdotes flow like wine.

“One time they put Scholesy in the tumble drier, and shut the door,” remembers Nicky Butt during a discussion on first-team initiation rituals.

“Turned it on and off quickly. I think that’s what brought his asthma on.” Beckham, meanwhile, reveals that his ceremony involved performing sexual actions on a Clayton Blackmore calendar, one of a number of mental images that viewers may find distressing.

Naturally, the story of the Treble-winning season is a familiar one, and yet its context is easily overlooked. This was, after all, the year of Beckham’s redemption, following his chastening World Cup the previous year.

It was the heady early days of Tony Blair’s Britain, and the former prime minister is one of the talking heads interviewed in this film. “What was great about the spirit of the time was that what on rational analysis was impossible, was actually done,” he said, an approach he sadly also employed with weapons dossiers.

At the same time, this is perhaps one of those films that only those who were young in the 1990s can fully appreciate. Nineties nostalgia is two a new pee these days, and the concerted effort to project the United team of the era as a product of a baggy-trousered, Oasis-tinged, Trainspotting-inspired cultural zeitgeist sometimes seems a touch tenuous.

“We were part of a revolution,” Phil Neville reflects. But then everyone thinks that about their youth, don’t they?

The mildly unhinged prankster Butt, the limelight-loving Beckham and the faintly idiosyncratic but fiercely loyal Neville brothers come across largely as you might expect. “He wanted to be a star,” Gary says of the immaculate young Cockney.

“He wanted leather seats in his first car. He paid extra for them, and alloys, with his FA Cup bonus.” One of the funniest bits, meanwhile, comes when Phil recreates his classic double-stepover against Southampton, in slow-motion: one of the great cinematic slow-motion shots, right up there with the flying bones in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Zinedine Zidane, Eric Cantona and Danny Boyle make brief cameos. Giggs displays a dry humour rarely seen in his interviews. But the undoubted star of the show is Scholes, so reclusive in public, but brought to grouchy life among his mates.

A pivotal moment in the film is Giggs’s magical goal in the FA Cup semi-final against Arsenal at Villa Park, replayed here again and again, emptying every ounce of its grace onto the screen. After which Scholes remarks: “All he had to do was square it to me.”

Scholes is the deadpan wise-cracker that Woody Allen never created, a real-life masterpiece of misanthropy and understatement. He does a terrific ‘puzzled’ face, made all the more hilarious by the knowledge that it is not deliberate.

Inevitably, the action concludes in Barcelona, with a blow-by-blow account of the most stunning night in United’s history. Afterwards, Gary lies on the pitch sobbing his eyes out. Giggs collapses into the arms of Ferguson like a baby.

A beaming Beckham strolls around the pitch, trying to take in the magnitude of their collective achievement. When everyone gets to their feet, a guard of honour is formed for suspended friends Scholes and Roy Keane.

Just as the moment threatens to subside under the weight of his own pathos, Scholes reflects, with unbeatable timing: “It was a bit embarrassing. I’d have rather just gone in the dressing room and waited, really.”

A sparkling comic career awaits him, if only he wanted it.

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