We don't have to take his manager's word for precisely where in the football firmament Paul Scholes sits. If selected against Portsmouth tonight, it will be his 600th game for Manchester United, and those who have cited Scholes as the best of the best down the years range from Sir Bobby Charlton to Zinedine Zidane and many, many in between. "The complete midfielder," Zidane called him, "my toughest opponent," to which Charlton added that he was "the embodiment of all that I think is best about football". But ahead of the Portsmouth game, Sir Alex Ferguson did not pass up the chance to draw attention to the milestone.
What started in a League Cup game against Port Vale in September 1994 with Scholes scoring twice, reaches its latest and perhaps last significant landmark at Old Trafford because Scholes has said he intends only to see out the contract extension he signed last autumn, a deal that takes him to June 2010, and his manager has no reason to believe he can dissuade him. "Paul usually says what he means and means what he says," Sir Alex Ferguson said yesterday. "There is no question about that."
There have been many stand-out moments – the 35-yard volley at Villa Park which was 2005-6 goal of the season, the similar strike against Barcelona which sealed a place in last season's Champions League final and the 14 he contributed as United overcame Eric Cantona's suspension to take the 1995-96 Double. But Scholes is not a stand-out individual, of course. His inclination, in an age of celebrity, to head for Saddleworth Moor after a match explain why, as Ferguson also revealed yesterday, there have been no inquiries from other clubs for Scholes' services.
"You know why we've had no inquiry?" Ferguson said. "Because they all know. They all know he would never leave. He has maybe had private approaches, people begging him to join them. That's how it happens, isn't it? Agents phoning him up and all that nonsense. He could have played in any league in Europe – no problem. But they all know he wouldn't want to leave here."
It may be another of those periodic United landmark weeks, with Ryan Giggs ready to become the first player to reach 800 appearances against Tottenham Hotspur on Saturday, if he also plays tonight. Scholes has been wracked by the injuries which Giggs has avoided, though; two knee operations, the eye problem which kept him out for most of the 2005-06 season. Without that he would have be nearer 700 appearances. "He has probably missed over a year of football," Ferguson reflected.
For all that, Scholes' 599 appearances have only been bettered by Charlton and Bill Foulkes, as well as Giggs, and his 142 goals see him among their top 12 highest goalscorers, with the top six achievable in the time he has left, and Giggs just five goals ahead. To Ferguson's mind, the man who arrived a year after the legendary class of '92 is among the top six or seven United players of all time. "When you look at the Edwardses and the Charltons and the Bests, then its difficult to say. But his contribution and his quality and some of the fantastic goals he has scored... even on Sunday [in the FA Cup semi-final] when he came on [as a 67th minute substitute] his first touch of the ball was better than anybody else's on the park for the whole previous hour. He has that wonderful velvet touch on the ball that means it just goes dead when he gets it. Amidst the mayhem that can happen in a game it is wonderful to see that."
In a rare interview with the Independent on Sunday last year, Scholes said he felt "there isn't much time left so I have to enjoy it". Back then, the young Brazilian Anderson was emerging as the first possible successor to Scholes in midfield. But Scholes is still around. The fulfillment of the 21-year-old's potential is very much still awaited.
Wayne Rooney is available after recovering from a slight knock to the ankle, Darren Fletcher is back from a minor hamstring strain and Michael Carrick will be assessed. But Ferguson possesses a keen sense of history, which makes Scholes a strong contender to start. He also knows what he will get from him. As Keane once said of his former team-mate: "No celebrity bullshit... just an amazingly gifted player who has remained an unaffected human being."Reuse content