Football: From liability to Lethal Weapon II

The England coach swears by the talent of an irritant feared by Poland
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The Independent Online
OFF THE FIELD, he can be as silent as a lamb. Once on it, and with his blood up, he is as menacing as Hannibal Lecter, and opponents prepare to jump out of their skin. There can be few greater footballing enigmas than Paul Scholes, a scorer of a much-celebrated treble in Kevin Keegan's first game in charge of England at Wembley, but ignominiously banished to the dressing-room during the next international at the national stadium.

Yesterday, because of that dismissal against Sweden - one he received for two crude assaults on Stefan Schwarz, although he might have encountered red in the early minutes for a fearsome challenge on Hakan Mild that left a puncture wound in his opponent's thigh - Scholes sat on the sidelines.

On Wednesday at the Legia Stadium, Warsaw, significantly against his hat-trick victims Poland, he will be back. Keegan hardly needed to confirm that fact. The England coach's faith in the flame-haired, combative midfielder remains undiminished; yet, you fear that the scholar is still not always attentive in the classroom of basic football sense. By his own admission, Scholes is not particularly adept at tackling. As a forward who has been transformed into a midfielder, his enthusiasm too frequently outweighs caution. While he continues to launch himself at wily international opponents, the Manchester United man remains a liability. When on the offensive, he can shoot, pass or penetrate a rearguard with a late run like a precision instrument; but in the challenge, particularly at the highest level, he has the timing of a "bargain" watch offered by Oxford Street pavement traders.

In the Uefa Super Cup against Lazio, it was so predictable. Even in that glorified friendly against Lazio nine days ago in Monaco, he was the one Manchester United player who managed to leave his familiar calling card - the late tackle - and receive a yellow one in return. He already has three this season. When he first assumed authority, Keegan had exhorted Scholes to "drop hand-grenades".

Some would suggest that he had either misheard or interpreted this as an instruction to drop-kick rivals. Yet Keegan insisted: "I would be more concerned if he didn't tackle. You do worry a little bit as a manager. Whether you're manager of England or Fulham, any side, you get on the coach for away games where you know you're going to be under the cosh a fair bit and think, 'Are we going to finish with 11 men?'."

But the England coach added: "I don't think you can start having a wish- list of things that you would like to change in your players. You know they come as a package. Take the aggression away, that wanting to win the ball and that willingness to chase people and get tackles in, take all that away and you'll take away the goalscoring and the other things that we like.

"If he started to pull out of tackles, that would worry me more. I think that's an important part of Paul Scholes. That aggression in him is a very important part of his make-up, that determination. That's why he got sent off against Sweden. It was this desire to win every ball, which sometimes you can't do, but he's a key player."

The memory of those three goals against Poland, from a position deployed behind the front two, could prove considerably unnerving for Wednesday's opponents. Keegan believes that is his ideal role. "I think he can play anywhere," Keegan said. "But his best position is in the hole behind the front two. When you talk about 'in the hole', some players abuse it and don't work back. But he does, which makes him even harder to pick up because he's coming from deeper and he still gets there in front of goal. He would have earned some respect from what he did to the Poles last time."

Yet the diffident Scholes, who can appear like a contrite schoolboy when the attention focuses on him, for good reason or bad, possibly does not receive the acclaim he merits. Even Keegan has trouble drawing out his personality. "I can't get him to talk at all," the coach said. "If I talk to him, he just says, 'yeah', you know. He just lets his football do the talking."

Keegan added: "I do think he's the most wonderful player. If you said to me, 'Which player has surprised you most in the four games since you've been in charge?' I would have to say Paul Scholes. In training, everything. I expected things from other players, but I didn't really know Paul and his role in Man United because of the quality he has around him sometimes.

"He is under-estimated because he chooses it that way. Ability-wise, he's got it all. I mean, you come and watch this guy in a shooting session. You talk to the goalkeepers afterwards; he hits the ball so hard."

Scholes's presence on Wednesday will at least be one certainty on a night of imponderables. The principal problem Keegan faces in Warsaw is gauging how the Poles will approach the game, although he attempts to downplay that conundrum. "Is a draw a good result for Poland? Is a draw a terrible result?" he asked rhetorically. "I don't know what their attitude will be because they still have to go to Sweden. I won't worry about that, as long as we're spot on. We have to go out there and play this game like it is the most important game we've played."

He pauses for effect, before adding: "Because it is."