Football: Scholes set to sparkle in the limelight

Glenn Hoddle's 'tough little nut' is ready to crack the England role left vacant by his idol. Mike Rowbottom reports
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The Independent Online
PAUL SCHOLES could be heading for a disastrous World Cup campaign. Distastrous, that is, in terms of his preferred image.

While his Manchester United contemporaries, David Beckham and Ryan Giggs, command the attention with their exciting activities both on and off the pitch, this 23-year-old is more than happy to play a quieter role.

"I'm just shy," he said yesterday, with a convincingly shy smile. "I don't like being in the limelight."

Well now, Paul, you could have a bit of a problem there, because you are about to take part in the world's biggest sporting event with all England expecting - or at least hoping - that you can fill the gap left by the lately departed Paul Gascoigne.

England's coach, Glenn Hoddle, has talked about the young Manchester United midfielder in glowing terms, referring to him as a potential jewel in the crown. And only this week the United manager, Alex Ferguson, described him as the most creative player in the England side.

Scholes' reaction, sensibly, is to draw confidence from such plaudits rather than shrink under the pressure of expectation. He is a sensible young man who has spent his money so far on the most sensible thing anyone can - a house. He has also invested in transport, in the quasi-practical rather than racy form of a Cherokee Jeep. And he has a girlfriend who is not a Spice Girl.

"I don't think it matters what you are like off the field as long as you are good on it," he said.

As he himself acknowledges, Scholes changes when he gets on to the pitch, becoming a voluble, volatile character. However, his emotions are still a world away from those of Gascoigne, whose exclusion from the final England squad came as a surprise to the United man.

Yet Scholes was quick to point out that six players had been cut from the squad on that day, and he felt the loss more keenly than some as two of them were his club colleagues Phil Neville and Nicky Butt. The latter was to have been his room-mate in France. "It was impossible to feel pleased with yourself with those two being left out," he said. "It was one of the worst days I can remember. Seeing them walking away - it was horrible."

Asked what his own aims were for the forthcoming tournament, he was conservative. "I just want to play," he said. "I'll take it from there."

Hoddle, however, was happy to speak more eloquently in his favour yesterday. "This lad's got everything as an offensive player," he said. "He can play in different positions and he's going to get better and better. His end product is probably better than any of the youngsters at the moment. He can score goals, he can make them, he tracks back, he gets his foot in. He's a tough little nut.

"And he's got the temperament - he just gets on with his work. I think sometimes because he does that he's not looked upon as a future superstar. He does all his talking on the football pitch.

"If he becomes a superstar, it will only be for what he's done on the pitch. Which isn't a bad way of doing it."

Hoddle's comment seemed to contain an unspoken comparison with the man whose role Scholes may, in part, take over.

Coincidentally, Gascoigne was one of Scholes' idols when he was young. "The first big memory I have of him is watching the 1990 World Cup," Scholes said. "I love the way he plays, the way he beats people. It's sheer entertainment."

Scholes' ability to provide his own version of World Cup entertainment was put in doubt earlier this year when he began to suffer with a knee problem. He reached the point when an operation was being considered - but then, thankfully, the knee responded to a couple of weeks rest.

He retains one other difficulty, namely the asthma which will require him to take a number of inhalers to France. "They are working well for me at the moment," he said, adding that the team doctor had told him there would be no problem with him playing a sequence of matches in close proximity.

Now that Gazza has gone, that means a more likely prospect. It is a welcome one, too.