Paul Scholes: 'I know there isn't much time left so I have to enjoy it'
In an exclusive interview, the Manchester United midfielder reveals why he turned his back on England, life with Sir Alex and the possibility of leaving Old Trafford for Oldham
The table in reception at Manchester United's training ground is festooned with copies of the official players' union magazine, full of glossy advertisements for Aston Martin, £5,000 Swiss watches and "the most exclusive penthouses the world has ever seen" in Dubai Marina. The advertisers clearly feel they know their market. Paul Scholes – family man, drives an Audi, lives on Saddleworth Moor and dislikes the sun – must cause a certain scratching of heads.
In a rare interview before Euro 2004 – all Scholes interviews have rarity value – he was asked what constituted an ideal day for him. The answer, in a matter-of-fact Oldham drawl, was: "Train in the morning, pick up the kids from school, play with them, have tea, get them to bed and then watch a bit of TV."
The only thing that has changed in the subsequent four years is that there is now an extra little boy to amuse and, professionally, he is no longer available to England.
He made that decision in the wake of the Portugal tournament, when a beating sun on ginger hair aggravated his asthma and he was substituted in every game. "England have lost their best player," George Best said at the time.
So once this afternoon's key Premier League game at home to Liverpool is over, he can be first out of the door and home for tea and bathtime instead of rushing south to join up with Fabio Capello's squad.
"I've felt the benefit the last couple of years," Scholes says of his self-imposed international exile. "I can spend more time at home, which helps. When England play, you get a couple of days off and it's always nice to get that bit of relaxation. At some stage you have to put your feet up. When you're with England you maybe don't get as much chance as I do now."
Whether Capello would have been any more successful than Sven Goran Eriksson in integrating him into the midfield with Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard and Joe Cole is a moot point, but a 20-minute cameo against Bolton last Wednesday reminded everyone why the manager might have liked the chance.
Brought on with Wayne Rooney in a double substitution designed to demoralise any opposition, Scholes gave a classic display of passing and moving, collecting the ball off United's back four, controlling it and then spreading it either far and wide or short and simple, but always to a red shirt.
The comfortable 2-0 victory enabled United to establish a stretch of clear blue water at the head of the Premier League for the first time since Boxing Day. Not that anyone at the club regards a three-point advantage over Arsenal as more than a pleasant bonus. "It is definitely a three-horse race, and there's a question of whether it could be four," Scholes says, adding today's opponents into the equation. "Liverpool haven't had a great Premiership season so you haven't really looked at them. They might be 11 points behind us but if they could beat us, they could be right back in it. Three weeks ago, Arsenal were five points clear, so it shows how quickly it can turn around."
Familiar names, familiar foes. Since the season of his first-team debut in 1994, the Blackburns and Newcastles have had little more than a year or two in the limelight while the fab four have fought for the title, and one fixture has stuck out: "Maybe over the past few years, Arsenal and Chelsea have been bigger in terms of going for the League, but overall through history, Liverpool is definitely the biggest game. It always was, right down to when you were playing on Saturday morning in the B team or the Under-16s; it was always special playing Liverpool and trying to beat them."
Gerrard also makes reference to those youth games in his autobiography (as well as "some right kicking matches with Wes Brown") and speaks of the "vitriol" and "poison" from United fans these days. Yet he admits to being disarmed when introduced to United players on his first England call-up: "Almost 20 years of being conditioned to hate Man U went up in smoke. There I was shaking hands with Beckham and Scholes. They were brilliant at putting the new boy at ease."
Gerrard might even have blushed at hearing Scholes' comments about his new role as second striker just behind Fernando Torres: "Playing a bit further forward, he's made a big difference. I think it makes good use of his strengths, he's a strong runner and good passer of the ball so they seem to have settled on that, playing two holding midfielders and let Steven get on with it.
"Probably for the last few years, since Michael Owen and Robbie Fowler, they'd lacked a goalscorer. But Torres has scored goals, in his first season as well. Foreigners have struggled to adapt but he hasn't at all, with Steven helping him." So any hack across the shins from Scholes this afternoon will be entirely due to his famed lack of timing in the tackle. Probably.
Mention his tackling – he is the only England player to be sent off at Wembley, for two lunges against Sweden in 1999 – and he becomes a little defensive for the first time. "I'm trying to remember the last time I got booked. I noticed in the programme I've only been booked twice this season. So it's probably that I'm not tackling enough! I wouldn't call it a problem. I've never particularly worked on it. Sometimes you mistime them, sometimes you don't."
Perhaps English referees know the essential nature of the man and make occasional allowance. Steve Bennett certainly did in sparing him a second yellow card that would have meant suspension from the 2004 FA Cup final against Millwall (to the London club's fury). In Europe, he has been less fortunate. Another piece of "mistiming" led to dismissal in the Champions' League quarter-final away to Roma last season, thereby sitting out one of the very best United performances in his 17 years at the club, the 7-1 victory in the second leg. Previously, of course, therewas a ban along with Roy Keane from the greatest day inUnited's recent history, the 1999 Champions' League final.
Now Roma, though already beaten at Old Trafford in the group stage this season, stand in the way again. Most players would be bursting to go all the way and make up for the frustration of missing out nine years ago. Characteristically, Scholes – and it could be Keane speaking – sees the challenge only in terms of the team, not himself: "I think whether you've missed a chance or not, it's a massive tournament for everybody involved, even players like Paolo Maldini who've won it five or six times. You'd like to think you'd score seven again – to beat a top Italian team by that score was amazing – but it's probably not going to happen. If we can get something out there and have something to come back here to, it'll be great."
Remind him that Sir Alex Ferguson has effectively promised him a place in the final if United make it to Moscow, and the reaction is equally typical: "If we get there, I want to be there on merit. I don't want no sympathy vote. If I'm not playing well, the manag-er's not going to say, 'You missed the final 10 years ago, go and play for 10 minutes'. I wouldn't read too much into that one."
On that subject, how does he read the manager, the only one he has known at club level? "It's just his presence, I think, that gives you a lift itself. Although he's never really been one for playing people on their training performances, when he comes out to training everybody tries that little bit harder."
Ferguson is a huge admirer still, but in the emerging young Brazilian Anderson, United have for the first time a player identified as Scholes' successor in central midfield. At 33, how does that make him feel?
"There was always going to be a time when someone came in who's young and sprightly, with a lot of ability and will keep you out of the team. I know there probably isn't that much time left, so you have to try to enjoy it as much as you can, coming to training, playing games. I hope it's a long time away. I just want to concentrate on playing for as long as possible."
If that eventually means moving on from United, so be it. "It won't be far, I'm very much a home person," he says. His first love, Oldham Athletic, might be in with a shout. But Barcelona and Milan, like the Dubai Marina developers, should prepare for disappointment. As Keane once said of his erstwhile team-mate: "No celebrity bullshit... just an amazingly gifted player who has remained an unaffected human being."
The Scholes stats
Full name: Paul Aaron Scholes.
Born: 16 November 1974, Salford.
Vital statistics: 5ft 7in, 11st 9lb.
Club career: Manchester United (1991-current), 559 appearances, 138 goals.
England career: (1997-2004) 66 appearances, 14 goals.
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