James Lawton: Eternal Scholes gives United kiss of life

"The more I watched him, the more I felt that Scholes was United through and through"

You could interpret in various ways the tender moment when Gary Neville wrapped his hands around the head of Paul Scholes and pursed his lips.

He was about to drive several coaches through the homophobic fortress of the Premier League. This was the take of the whimsical Kirsty Young, who told the Andrew Marr Show that it might have been a clip from Brokeback Mountain.

On the other hand Neville, who is of course not famous for striking the most agreeable notes, may have been emphasising a line of praise time-honoured among hard, macho but understating pros, the one that goes: "You'll do for me, son."

The best guess here is that the United captain was speaking for a growing body of football opinion that has long tired of the cult of personality that has grown at roughly the same pace as astronomical wages. He was saying that, at the age of 35, Scholes still owns the most embraceable values in all of English football.

Though his manager, Sir Alex Ferguson, was not likely to have been ruled entirely by sentiment when he awarded Scholes a year's extension to his contract, he cannot have been totally impervious to the idea that his great player's career was indisputably winding down. Recently there has been some compelling evidence of wear and tear, but if Ferguson was looking on Saturday for some encouragement in his belief that arguably the greatest product of the club since the emergence of Sir Bobby Charlton and George Best is still capable of producing an occasional, and vitally timed, masterclass, he surely received an extravagant reward for his faith.

For admirers of Scholes there was certainly a wonderful symbolism in the fact that it was he who made the greatest single contribution to reanimating the title race, not only with his superb, classic header with just seconds left on the clock but also with the unbridled aggression he had displayed for 90 minutes.

This, no doubt, had something to do with Manchester City manager Roberto Mancini's conservative game plan, which yielded acres of time and space in which Scholes could take hold of one of the most vital games ever played within the city boundaries.

Even so, this was a statement of class and acumen which could only confirm the player's high place in the history of both his club and his nation's football.

Among other things, it reminded you of all the dismay that came when Scholes, weary of being the principal victim of Sven Goran Eriksson's constant midfield tinkering, generally to the benefit of such headliners as David Beckham, Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard, finally turned his back on England.

The "golden generation" were never so good that they could afford to lose such a consistently creative and forceful presence at the heart of their midfield. Certainly, his departure from United will signal an increasing need for such authority at Old Trafford. Darren Fletcher, Michael Carrick and Nani have all had their moments this last season, but never to the point where Ferguson could afford to forget the remnants of Scholes' ability to deliver a killing impact in the most important of games.

Next season will surely be the time when Ferguson will have to begin to put aside such potent lingering in the past.

In the meantime, though, the rest of us can only marvel at the enduring nature of Scholes' contribution to a game which he has always celebrated for its own sake. It was indeed hard not to make comparisons with the trauma of John Terry on a day when an entire season entered a decisive phase. Terry, like Scholes, has put together a formidable body of work over the years. Unlike Scholes, he has also put himself at the mercy of forces which have always lurked beyond the touchline. They are the ones which Scholes insulated himself against right from the start of his football life. This is not a moral statement but a mere reporting of certain consequences. Scholes found the best of himself once again at Old Trafford. Terry was a ragged version of a great pro at White Hart Lane.

Francis Lee, an extrovert who never stinted on the good things in life, paid one of the more extraordinary tributes to Scholes in the wake of defeat for his beloved City. Nor did he deliver it through gritted teeth. He said simply that, as far as he was concerned, you could keep Bryan Robson and Eric Cantona, Roy Keane, David Beckham and Cristiano Ronaldo, there was no doubt in his mind that Scholes had been the outstanding servant for United since the Holy Trinity of Law, Best and Charlton.

When Scholes was a mere 32, Charlton declared: "Watching Alex Ferguson build so many great teams has given us the chance to see so many great players like Roy Keane and Eric Cantona and Ryan Giggs, but I have to admit my favourite has always been Paul Scholes.

"I love his football intelligence and his conviction that he will always find a way to win. The more I have watched him the more I have felt, 'This boy is Manchester United through and through'. He's always on the ball, always turning on goal, always trying to bring other people into the action and if he ever loses the ball you have to suspect he is ill.

"I'm always disappointed when I don't see his name on the team sheet. His absence makes me feel despondent. I wonder who is going to do all that clever stuff that cuts up a defence."

You wonder, also, who will fight so hard to keep football at the centre of his life, who will most doggedly resist the temptations of the fast lane and the lure of mere celebrity over rock-hard achievement, and who, at an age when most leading players are consigned to the margins of the big league, will raise his fist to the heavens and say that maybe he has one great performance left.

There is one obvious candidate, of course. His name is Wayne Rooney and he can only benefit from seeing, up so close, what might turn out to be the most glorious of Last Hurrahs.

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