Now that Paul Scholes has gone, can Ryan Giggs be far behind? The question may be forlorn for the admirers of two magnificent players but it is also inevitable.
In their different styles and natures, both held at bay the years quite stupendously but for the past few seasons they probably didn't need telling that they were operating on borrowed time.
Yesterday Scholes, at 36 a year younger than his team-mate, confirmed the reality that in his career he had faced just two obstacles. One was a chronic inability not only to master the art of making a coherent, legal tackle but also grasping the fundamentals of the challenge. The other was that one day he might grow old out there on the field.
Some suspect that it may have happened in the FA Cup semi-final against Manchester City last month when his tackle on Pablo Zabaleta drew the most formal of red cards. This was not just Scholes but also history playing more than a shade dirty for, if his tackling was both an eyesore and dangerous, every other part of his game, including his attitude to it, was nothing less than an unremitting glory.
For the player who prompted Sir Bobby Charlton to say, "Watching him play makes me feel young again, makes me want to get out there with the ball at my feet", to leave his last great stage in such ignominious circumstances must have prompted sadness in all but the most rabid partisans.
The fact that so often in his final season Scholes was able to remind us of the best and most creative of his talent only heightened the poignancy of his losing battle against the clock. Losing? Well, it is a relative term and does nothing to deflect us from the fact that, of all his generation of footballers, few began to match the constancy of both his play and his desire. He made football his only existence beyond the one he shared with his family and close friends and it is one impoverished by his departure.
The same will be true of Giggs when, maybe in more complicated circumstances, he too decides that it is time to walk away. That his performance against Barcelona in the Champions League was so surrounded by personal difficulties was one of two points of sadness. The other was that, against the highest standard of opposition, it was clear that Giggs could no longer impose the enduring talent that had at such pivotal moments illuminated his season.
For Giggs the fear must be that while he struggled in the slipstream of men like Messi and Xavi and Iniesta, another reality landed with the force of a hammer. It was that, at the highest point of the season's challenge that in so many ways he handled quite brilliantly, he was a lost and irrelevant figure. This ambushed the romantic idea that in the middle of a personal crisis he might just find some strands of the best of his talent. It also, surely, brought even more urgency to United's job of recasting a midfield which, for a second time in two years against Barcelona and at many stages in between, had been exposed as unfit for the highest purposes.
There is talk now of a United move for the finely creative Luka Modric and clearly he would be a major step in the right direction. However, Modric alone would likely be swamped by the scale of his task. United also need significant power, a driving force that was best represented by Bastian Schweinsteiger before he made his peace with Bayern Munich.
It may seem indelicate, this talk of new feet in the shoes of men such as Scholes and Giggs, but then when did football ever linger over the need to assign its heroes to the past? Maybe the best tribute will always be the urgency with which they are replaced, however discouraging the task.
The good, the bad and the ugly: A life less ordinary
In an incredible career for club (150 goals in 676 games for Manchester United) and country (14 goals in 66 England games), Paul Scholes has seen it all and done it all.
Show us your medals
10 Premier Leagues (1995-96, 1996-97, 1998-99, 1999-00, 2000-01, 2002-03, 2006-07, 2007-08, 2008-09, 2010-11)
2 Champions Leagues (1999, 2008)
3 FA Cups (1996, 1999, 2004)
2 League Cups (2009, 2010)
1 Fifa Club World Cup (2008)
1 Intercontinental Cup (1999)
1. England 3-1 Poland, Euro 2000 qualifier at Wembley (March 1999): Hat-trick in Kevin Keegan's first game.
2. Man Utd 1-0 Barcelona, Champions League semi-final, second-leg (April 2008): Scholes smashes a vicious long-range shot from 25 yards into the top corner. United go on to beat Chelsea in the final.
3. Bradford 0-4 Man Utd, Premier League (March 2000): Scores one of the great Premier League goals. He connects with an unforgettable right-footed volley from edge of area.
What the world's best say
Thierry Henry "He knows how to do everything. The best I have seen in the Premiership in the middle of the park."
Zinedine Zidane "Scholes is the greatest midfielder of his generation."
Glenn Hoddle "There isn't a player of his mould anywhere else in the world."
Wayne Rooney "He's the best I've played with and against."
Cesc Fabregas "He is the one whose level I aspire to. He is the best player in the Premier League."
Xavi "Scholes is a spectacular player who has everything. If he had been Spanish then maybe he would have been valued more."
Sir Alex Ferguson "We are going to miss a truly unbelievable player."
Sir Bobby Charlton "He's always so in control and pinpoint accurate with his passing – a beautiful player to watch."
Paul Scholes was sent off 10 times during his career, with nine red cards for Manchester United and one for England. His three most notorious dismissals:
Everton 1-0 Man Utd, Premier League (April 2005): Sent off after receiving a second yellow for a reckless kick on Kevin Kilbane.
Man City 1-0 Man Utd, FA Cup semi-final (April 2011): Terrible wild and high challenge on Pablo Zabaleta.
Man Utd 1-2 Zenit St Petersburg, European Super Cup (August 2008): Emulated Maradona when he punched Wes Brown's cross into the top corner as United chased an equaliser.
And one that got away:
Barcelona 2-0 Man Utd, Champions League final (May 2009): Scholes chops down Sergio Busquets. Somehow he only receives a yellow.Reuse content