No regrets from Scholes as he prepares for the next chapter
United's new coach tells Ian Herbert why bridging gap with Barcelona is a challenge he and the manager are looking forward to
For the players, it was a day for standing on the sun-baked Carrington training pitch, gazing at the results of Wayne Rooney's hair-raising summer, but for the man who has now left them all behind there were no distractions – just an overwhelming sense of the enormity of Manchester United's task if they are to bridge the chasm and present a meaningful challenge to the reigning European champions, ten months from now.
Paul Scholes has scaled a few peaks in his time with Sir Alex Ferguson but he has little hesitation in saying that eclipsing this Barcelona is the manager's toughest challenge in nearly a quarter of a century at Old Trafford. Scholes was offered a few straws to clutch at. Nicklas Bendtner's late miss in last season's Nou Camp tie, it was put to him, could have seen Arsène Wenger, rather than Pep Guardiola, advance to the Champions League final. But the latest recruit to United's coaching staff just wasn't buying that.
"If you look over those two Arsenal games – Jesus Christ, it could have been any score... " he said. Scholes hasn't played back the footage of the Wembley Champions League final yet but his assessment of the game which brought his 656th and last United appearance, from the bench as the Catalans won 3-1, suggested it will always haunt him. "Yes it was bad, probably as bad as [the 2-0 Champions League final defeat] two years ago in Rome really," Scholes said. "You would have hoped that in that two years you would have been able to bridge the gap a bit really. We were a million miles away from them. When you are taught a lesson like that – not once, but twice – it stays with you."
These thoughts are not being shared in Scholes' natural environment, it must be said. Day One of the rest of Scholes' life has brought him to the improbable surrounds of the Manchester offices of Grant Thornton. The chartered accountants are sponsoring and helping organise his testimonial against Eric Cantona's New York Cosmos next month.
But the searing insight of Scholes is still there, the fundamental quality to which he ascribes Barcelona's greatness being neither the genius of Xavi nor Andres Iniesta, the player who asked for his shirt at Wembley, but sheer selflessness.
"I think the biggest thing about these players is their unselfishness – the whole team's. I know [Lionel] Messi is the one who scores 50 goals a year but among the team he is not the big star," Scholes said. "As a group, they are all stars and there's not one who stands out who wants to take the credit. They are just an unselfish team in which not one of them is out for glory."
Which can only invite comparisons with the player whose threat to leave Old Trafford last October revealed only the power of one ego. It was the statement Rooney issued two hours before a Champions League tie questioning the "continued ability" of United "to attract the top players in the world" which cut United most deeply and though Rooney has apologised, writer Steve Bartram's new book about the 19th title season tellingly quotes John O'Shea suggesting that the striker later told team-mates that he had "done what he had to do, basically."
"I think he was a little bit disrespectful," Scholes reflected. "He held his hands up afterwards and said sorry. He definitely regretted the statement." This was just not the Manchester United way, it was put to Scholes. "No. I don't think you see it at other clubs either, do you?"
This individual has never required many words to make a point with impact and he does not take up the opportunity to say it was important to keep Rooney. "Manchester United can lose any player and they would cope with it," he said. "I don't think it matters who it is. When Roy Keane left, you wondered who could replace him, but it just happens. You go back years, think about Mark Hughes, Andrei Kanchelskis, Paul Ince."
But Rooney is still around and Scholes – who will discuss with Sir Alex Ferguson next month whether the coaching role which he has accepted will, as the manager has suggested, involved the reserve team – sees him as a future embodiment of Barcelona's quality. "Wayne can be United's Messi," was how he put it.
The Liverpudlian's game is still incomplete, Scholes believes. The barren spells which have punctuated his career have not yet been put behind him and though the moments of hot-headedness will remain always, Rooney might fill the role which once made Scholes such an abundant source of goals.
"Yes I can see [Rooney in my role] a little bit," Scholes said. "He did that in a couple of games towards the end of the season – dropped back into midfield and did well. I played up front like Wayne when I was younger, but I dropped back because I was too slow. Wayne is quicker than I was. [He might need] a little bit more discipline mainly – in his positional sense and helping his back four out."
The first time in 20 years, yesterday, the sun had risen on a new United season in which he had no part. "Weird. I woke up today, put on the news and saw all the lads going back in for pre-season training. The first step," Scholes reflected.
There will be a holiday now and preparations for the testimonial which, as a concession to those who want him in the spotlight, he will actually be present for. It's a month since Scholes joked that he was considering having the match "beamed live on video-link to Oldham" so that he could watch from the seclusion of his own home. A total of 50,000 tickets have already been sold.
There are no regrets, he insisted, and no second thoughts about a decision to retire which he made after United's home game with Everton on 23 April, in which he played no role. Except the thought of what a place in that Barcelona side would have felt like. "Who wouldn't have fancied it because it is a great footballing team," Scholes said. "I'm just not sure I would have got in."
Tickets are available for Paul Scholes' testimonial which pits Manchester United against New York Cosmos on Friday 5 August. For details ring 0161 868 8000.
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