James Lawton : Quiet Scholes, the 'half-decent player' France fear most

In sport they are always saying so-and-so is the best player never to have won a great prize, but what if you're 29 and maybe going into your last major tournament without a triumph and also with no kind of agreement on how good you really are? What do you do? Pout and curse both the gods and the critics?

In sport they are always saying so-and-so is the best player never to have won a great prize, but what if you're 29 and maybe going into your last major tournament without a triumph and also with no kind of agreement on how good you really are? What do you do? Pout and curse both the gods and the critics?

Not if you are Paul Scholes. You say, as perhaps one of the least celebrated superstars in world football did here yesterday: "They can say what they like about me, I don't care. But I would like to win a big one with England because, yes, the years are dwindling now. This could be my last chance."

On a day when his former Manchester United team-mate David Beckham was engulfed in still another controversy - this one as the Football Association bitterly protested use of paparazzi shots of an unguarded moment when the England captain adjusted his Y-fronts on his hotel room balcony - Scholes gave a rare insight into his deepest feelings, and ambitions, for both his football and his jealously protected private life.

He said he thought England were capable of beating a great French team in Sunday's opening group game and maybe going all the way in these European Championships, adding that in his seven years as an England player he had never seen such a surge of young talent and confidence within the squad. But as for his own hopes of reward in and out of the game, nothing had changed since he first presented himself at Old Trafford as a raw teenager. Scholes said: "When it's over I just want to be able to look in the mirror and say, 'Well, you were a half-decent player'."

In fact, Scholes, despite failing to score for England over the last three years, while hitting 54 goals for United, long ago outstripped such a modest assessment - at least within the game. In his stay at Old Trafford, the French icon Laurent Blanc became the fiercest of his admirers, saying: "I've said it before and I tell anyone who asks me: 'Scholes is the best English player'. Intelligence, technique, strength... all the attributes are there. At Manchester United I saw what he could do on the training field. Phew!" Edgar Davids, the pit bull of the Netherlands' midfield, says: "Everyone one of us should emulate him. We can all learn from Paul Scholes." Patrick Vieira, who will wage war with Scholes in the midfield trenches at the Estadio da Luz on Sunday night, says he is the English opponent he respects most. Jacques Santini, the French coach, echoes the point.

Yesterday Scholes, who doesn't have an agent, talked for the first time at length about his conscious decision to prove that being a top player was not incompatible with leading a normal life.

"My ideal day? Train in the morning, pick up the kids from school, go home, play with kids, have tea, get them up to bed [Aran is four, Alicia three], and then come down to watch a bit of TV. I don't get hassled. I can go anywhere I want to. Nobody stops me from going down to Tesco's. I'm recognised, of course, and I get asked for my autograph but it is never a problem. I've never been conscious of losing out on big money because of the way I've wanted to live my life. I've never turned down big commercials because I'm shy. It's just the way I've been. I did get a boot contract once. But no, I haven't earned much outside the game. Maybe it's because I'm not good looking enough."

He gave a small, easy smile when he said that and then when somebody held up a tabloid front page portraying Beckham in his underwear and asked him how he would like such exposure, he said: "I'd love that." It was, he implied, a question lobbed from another planet.

The pursuit of a normal life had always been paramount. He married his childhood sweetheart and when he looked at the great players he assessed only their play and not their lifestyle, admiring particularly the former England captain Alan Shearer and the man whose brilliance maybe most threatens England here, Zinedine Zidane. "Zidane," says Scholes, "can do everything you would want to do on the field - and he is seen as a quiet person as well. Zidane is amazing; his touches, his passes, the way he can create goals; everything he does on the football field is what you want to do."

His reaction to the Arsenal contingent who are such a potent factor in the French threat, - Vieira, Thierry Henry and Robert Pires - is a little more complicated. He admires their extraordinary skills but believes they are rather "complexed" characters - arrogant might be the optional word. So, he is asked, is there a feeling at Old Trafford that there is a certain boastfulness about Arsenal's Frenchmen? "I think there is that feeling sometimes, but maybe it is just the way they are. They have wound us up before some games and certainly we got stuck in when we beat them in the FA Cup semi-final... You have to remember Arsenal are our great rivals, but I just don't think we can make comparisons with Sunday's game. The French have so many different players and you have to remember another difference... our whole season was going into that one game at Villa Park.

"Vieira? It's always nice to test yourself against the best players and there's no doubt he's going to be one of the best holding players in the tournament. When I play against him I try to keep away from him, keep the ball away from him because his legs are so long. You put all the French team together and you see how much strength they have, but we do believe we can beat them."

Scholes says, yes, he does feel a debt to the England coach, Sven Goran Eriksson. "He has always spoken up for me - and he's never left me out. That's always important to a player when he's feeling a bit of pressure and I just hope I can pay him back. I was very frustrated when I didn't score against Iceland last Saturday; it was a great run and it would have been a great goal, but I was six yards out and when I missed it the rest didn't matter. The good thing is that I still have the confidence to make those runs into the box. I still believe in myself enough to do that and despite what I've read in many newspapers, I'm happy to play out on the left. I have the freedom to roam about a bit with the guarantee of having two in the middle.

"Obviously we have to shut down the best French players and take something to them. I think we can do that. I think we have enough confidence and enough talent."

And then he is gone into the bright midday sunshine. However, you know he will find the shadows soon enough - right up to 7.45 out on the field on Sunday night. There always, and whether he is scoring or not, he has never been inclined to hide.