TWO idols have stepped back out of the history books to assist a pair of clubs where youth-cultivation is the usual religion. Under pressure from the upstarts, Manchester City and Spurs, Arsenal and Manchester United have knocked up a quick bulwark of experience with Thierry Henry and Paul Scholes.
With a combined age of 71, these two Premier League aristocrats might now be confined to celebrity beach football, or the AC Milan side of a couple of seasons ago. Instead a nostalgia-laden 24 hours brought Scholes and Henry back into the colours they graced when United v Arsenal was the big power struggle in the English game.
Robbie Keane is back, too, for a couple of months, with Aston Villa. At 31, Keane is not in the Scholes-Henry age class but his acquisition on a two-month loan from America reaffirms the premium being placed on know-how.
At City’s Etihad Stadium on Sunday, Scholes was soon gulping for breath and mopping his brow as a January pitch sapped his energy after eight months on the sidelines. From the moment he galloped on for half an hour you could see the lack of locomotion in his legs.
The most gifted English midfielder since Paul Gascoigne was jumping back on to the motorway of Premier League action with his enthusiasm intact but his muscle reactions slowed by inactivity. Never mind. Despite the loose pass that contributed to City’s second goal the 37-year-old 'Ginger Prince’ moved the ball 71 times for a completion rate of 97 per cent.
More than that, the return of Sir Bobby Charlton’s “hero” brought authority and calm to the United dressing room after two consecutive defeats. A long injury list will have seemed less daunting with a passer of Scholes’s metronomic skill back on the scene.
United, like Arsenal, are assailed by new challenges. The broad sequence at the top over the past 15 years has been Arsenal v United, Chelsea v United and now United v City, with Spurs chasing hard. This has forced the two old empires to draw on all their deepest knowledge and resources.
Sir Alex Ferguson wanted Scholes to stay on at the end of last season and continues to keep Ryan Giggs stationed on the front line. To protect a 3-0 first-half lead United relied on a throwback midfield pairing of 75 years and over 1,200 appearances in red.
Off the pitch speculation buzzed. This was a memo to the Glazers from Ferguson: “Spend. Or else.” Others asked why the academy boys Paul Pogba and Ravel Morrison had not been pushed up the line.
In the recent work of both Ferguson and Arsène Wenger we see a pragmatic suspension of sacred principles in favour of consolidation. This same compromise saw Wenger buy Per Mertesacker, Mikel Arteta, André Santos and Yossi Benayoun in last summer’s transfer window.
Those dramatic late acquisitions have transformed Arsenal’s season. The collapse of morale that followed the loss of Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri was rectified by a sharp deviation from Wenger’s faith in home-taught 23 year-olds.
Borrowing Henry from the New York Red Bulls solved a specific manpower shortage caused by the Africa Cup of Nations. As a declining 34 year-old he might not quite illuminate the Emirates in 2012 the way he did Highbury. Wenger knows, though, that he will strengthen the team’s resolve and terrify tired defenders late in games, as he proved so explosively last night when he came off the bench to score the winner against Leeds United with just his fifth touch.
In both cases luminaries have been re-signed (Scholes, for the rest of this campaign) for their brains more than their bodies. Thus the battle is carried to City and Spurs on all fronts. Ferguson said of Scholes yesterday: “For the last few weeks he has been training very hard with the reserves and doing a lot of work in the gymnasium. He said he regrets retiring so there were no negatives for me.
“The players were delighted, I was delighted and I know the fans are delighted. We have stepped up his training for the last few weeks and he started to take part in our sessions during the week. It is a terrific addition to our squad at a very important part of the season.”
In an autumn interview with this correspondent, when his pictorial memoirs were published, Scholes said he would need time to decide whether helping to coach the reserves was a satisfactory next step. He reflected: “I’m not sure yet. I want to find out whether I really have the desire to do it. It might be three or four months before I know. If I go into something I want to be good at it. I don’t want to be a bit-part in something. It’s totally different talking to a group of players. It took three or four months for me to miss playing again. I knew I wasn’t going to be playing in the Champions League final [at Wembley, against Barcelona]. You know it’s time to go when you’re not even under consideration for selection, when you’ll do well to get on the bench. You want to think you’re good enough to start in a game like that.”
Scholes grinned as he crossed the white line again at City. No longer surplus to first-team requirements, he is desperately needed by United, a state he evidently prefers. The cult of youth gives way to the shock of the old, which Scholes came through, despite looking as if he might throw up