Football: Scholes the ice boy cometh

'It goes through your head how good the opposition are but if you can play, why be afraid of them?'; Ian Ridley talks to the little big man who has been thrust into a leading role for England
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The Independent Online
APPEARANCES can be deceptive. With his carrot-top complexion and ruddy cheeks, which he is currently trying to keep out of the sun, Paul Scholes looks as if he should be aflame, the way Alan Ball always used to be in England's cause. Instead, says his Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson, there is ice in his veins.

That much was seen on Monday in Marseilles and to some effect. Scholes may not be suited to the summer but he prospered well enough in the hot afternoon, bouncing back from missing two first-half chances to score England's second goal against Tunisia as the sun went down on the game.

"My first instinct was to play a one-two with Paul Ince but my first touch wasn't good enough," Scholes explains modestly and honestly. "It set me up for the shot, mind." It also capped what he described as "the best I have played in a big game" and - dare one say it with Glenn Hoddle about - virtually guarantees Scholes's place against Romania in Toulouse tomorrow night.

After the Tunisia match, Hoddle was lavish in his praise of "our best player", his replacement for Paul Gascoigne when most were expecting David Beckham to take over the creative midfield role. With some players, the coach said, you have to be careful about building them up in case they get carried away. There is, though, little prospect of that with Scholes, ever adaptable and versatile within the team.

"He has always been one of the quieter lads in our dressing room," Alex Ferguson has said. "But that isn't a bad thing. He is a very strong person, which is important if you are going to succeed at the top level. He comes from a working-class background and doesn't let success go to his head."

In fact, the Salford lad is real Oasis "mad for it" in an ironic sort of way. Everything about him is low-key and unflappable. In fact, Old Trafford's simple chant suits him: "Paul Scholes, he scores goals," they sing to the tune of "Kumbaya". It has been observed that he may never be a star of stage and screen because of his diffident nature, but that he does have it in him to be a great player.

His talent, Scholes himself says, is "making chances and scoring goals - that's it really." Was his scoring debut against Italy in Le Tournoi last summer a turning point in his career? "I don't know. It was just a friendly, really."

And when he is asked if anything outside the game excites him, he almost - almost, but not quite - bristles by way of reply, as if there is an implied suggestion in the question that he might be a teeny bit boring. "Yeah ... yeah," he insists. "I like to play golf. Other than that, no."

None of which is too important if you are a professional footballer and you are judged by what you do on the pitch. As Scholes says, he can be quite a different character there. "It doesn't matter what you are like off the pitch as long as you are OK on it. I am quiet off the pitch but once you get on it, you have to change. You can't just not say a word. You have to be shouting for the ball." And, as someone once said, it is far more important in football to have character than to be one.

It is probably the departure of Eric Cantona just over a year ago that allowed Scholes out of his shell. This is the Manchester United way; like Roman centurions, when one falls another steps into the void.

A check-up by a specialist around that time also helped him resolve a respiratory problem. Concerned that he was missing several weeks each winter with heavy chest colds, United sent him for a consultation. The result is that he now uses an inhaler to avert the problem, taking one puff in the morning, another at night. He also inhales just before a match.

Alex Ferguson had always seen Scholes as a potential successor to Cantona, with his eye for a pass and his ability to come late into the penalty box and score goals. Scholes acknowledges his debt. "Eric was brilliant for me," he says. "Just watching him in training I learned from him. I didn't have to be told to take note, I knew myself to look at him because he played in my type of position. What he brought to the team was the type of thing I try to bring - passing, skill, scoring goals."

It was the United youth coach Eric Harrison who saw that Scholes's best position was playing off one or two front players, as that figure "in the hole" linking midfield and the attack. This after Scholes had been a tiny right winger as a schoolboy, then played his first game for United's B team as a right-back.

Scholes was attached to the centre of excellence at Oldham Athletic - whom his dad used to take him to support - but was not enjoying it when Brian Kidd and Alex Ferguson's then assistant Archie Knox signed him on schoolboy forms for United. In his first year as an apprentice, Scholes even stood behind a goal shouting for Oldham when they played United in an FA Cup semi-final.

It was the schooling at Old Trafford that appears to have prepared him for the international game, with players encouraged to view each step up through the ranks as simply another game of football. "You've got to treat every game the same, work just as hard whoever you're playing for," says Scholes. "Of course it goes through your head how good the opposition are but if you can play, why be afraid of them?"

It is also why Hoddle has had no hesitation in thrusting him on to the international stage. Some players - whisper it around Old Trafford that Darren Anderton is one of them - have looked immediately at ease at the highest level. Scholes has been another.

It takes most players, they themselves will tell you, 15 appearances and more to feel comfortable in an international set-up; Scholes has looked the part throughout his eight. His four goals - which give him another edge over Beckham, without one in 15 games - represent the one-in-two ratio that every coach covets.

Now comes the part young players find difficult - though at the age of 23 Scholes is moving out of that category - that of assembling several good performances in a row. His temperament and record so far suggest it is not beyond him.

"The first thing is to see what run the centre-forward is making, if he's in," says Scholes of his role. "There's no point in looking somewhere else if you have got the ball and he's making a great run. He's going to get frustrated if I am not looking at him. Otherwise, I just try to keep the ball, really. Then once we get it forward, I get up to support the strikers and maybe get a chance myself."

Being thought of as Gazza's replacement has, he concedes, placed an onus on him. "I have always admired Paul Gascoigne and I am surprised he's not here. If I can do half as well as he has I will be pleased. I did feel a little pressure against Tunisia. I did feel I had to score or create a goal or play really well because Paul is a great player and I had to try to fill his boots."

He insists, however, that he will be doing it "my way" - and the statement had nothing to do with the current game in the England camp of trying to get as many song titles as possible into an interview. With Scholes, though, you don't know whether the one most appropriate to him is "Hot Stuff" or "Cold as Ice".

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