Old master Scholes poised to write final chapter of fairytale comeback
Paul Scholes never really retired. He just ambled off to train with the reserves. He was meant to be starting a new life as a coach and mentor to Manchester United's youth but the pull of the pitch was still too strong. Most days he would join in, keeping his skills and his brain sharp.
When the name 'Scholes' appeared back on a United team-sheet in their FA Cup third-round tie at Manchester City on January 8 the effect was electrifying. The English Xavi stretched his ageing hamstrings and jogged back out to help his ailing team. Now 37, Bobby Charlton's "hero" laid out his wares again: class, composure, vision.
Many called the return of United's inscrutable midfield maestro a sign of desperation, a frantic call to arms for an Old Trafford hero now cast in sepia. It was never that because Scholes had not let go. His retirement had not been a surrender to decrepitude -- more of a recognition that he could no longer cope with a back-up role, which he always found humiliating.
In an interview to launch his memoirs back in October he said of his new coaching and mentoring job: "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."
The most fame-phobic of United's golden generation, Scholes has always known his worth. Fourteen appearances into his second coming, after a 225-day absence, the best English passer of the last 20 years could be the difference between United retaining or losing their title. His Opta figures are glorious: 936 passes in 933 minutes, at a completion rate of 92pc, which is second only to Swansea's Leon Britton.
In this Premier League campaign, United have won 67 pc of their games without Scholes and 86pc with him in the side. Only City's Stefan Savic has a higher win percentage. Even tackling -- his weakness -- shows up well, with 61pc of challenges won (there is no corresponding figure for bruises to his opponents).
Scholes was always thought to be too small to become a star at United. When he stopped, they found he was too big to do without. Those 14 games were enough to earn third place in the Football Writers' Association Footballer of the Year poll, and there have been plaintive cries for him to come out of international retirement for Euro 2012. Rio Ferdinand has asked him publicly to carry on next term.
The happiest of comebacks revitalised United's title defence, in which power seemed to be shifting inexorably to City. Another circle completes itself with tonight's seismic Manchester derby in the sky blue sector, where Scholes replaced Nani in the 60th minute in that January cup tie and one United fan in the crowd could be seen throwing his arms wide and thanking the gods for his return.
Six months earlier, Scholes was seen firing home a rocket against New York Cosmos in a testimonial attended by 76,000 acolytes.
"Typical Scholes -- and boy, are we going to miss that," enthused the commentator. United's old red pepper overcame his shyness to thank the crowd and then retreated to Carrington to become one of Alex Ferguson's aides.
But United's midfield was about to fall apart. The pursuit of Samir Nasri had been foiled by City and Wesley Sneijder stayed at Inter Milan. Injuries to Anderson and Tom Cleverley left gaps. Outsiders mourned his absence and said United lacked midfield creativity, a claim Scholes later challenged.
"I think people are too obsessed with the idea of a replacement," he said. "They always talk about replacing a player who scored 15 goals a season. For the last five years I was never that type of player, especially for the last two years, when I was probably only playing 25-30 games a year."
But with Ryan Giggs still influential, Scholes expressed his restlessness to Ferguson. On the Friday before the City Cup game he was quietly re-registered.
At the Etihad Stadium, after his cameo, he blew like an old steeplechaser. Yet there was a noticeably calming effect on United's younger players, then and later. By their side was a cool, metronomic passer who had confronted every test over 17 years in a United shirt.
"There were no negatives as far as I was concerned," Ferguson said a few days later. "One or two people have been negative. They're making out it's been a 'regressive step'. How can it be regressive? You're getting a player for nothing who's been part of the club for 20-odd years.
"He's not going to play every game but in terms of composure and passing ability, is there a better player going around? Definitely not.
"We didn't let any of the players know simply because of the impact value. We were going away from home in a very difficult FA Cup tie against City. We had 5,000 fans at that end of the ground and as soon as they knew his name was on the team-sheet they were fantastic, there was a great response."
At that autobiography launch in October, Scholes' publicist warned: "This is the only book. There won't be another one." Oh yes there might. (© Daily Telegraph, London)