Rooney fever as Scholes senses a change of role

United's Ginger Spice turns 30 soon but does not feel threatened by the arrival of wonderboy
Click to follow
The Independent Online

After seven years and 66 games for your country, you have decided to retire from international football and are stuck at home while the lads fight for the flag and the manager's life in far-flung climes.

After seven years and 66 games for your country, you have decided to retire from international football and are stuck at home while the lads fight for the flag and the manager's life in far-flung climes. Imagine the agonising over whether it was the right decision; the sense of deprivation as the national anthem rings out and the first whistle blows. God for Sven, England and Saint George! How was it, Paul Scholes, did you think yourself accursed you were not there on the battlefield that was the Ernst Happel Stadium? The flattest of Lancashire accents: "No, I didn't see the first game, I was out."

The shock is not so much any perceived lack of patriotism, or disloyalty to former comrades, but that "Scholesy" should be having a Saturday night out. This, after all, is a man as down-to-earth as a modern Manchester United footballer can be, a reluctant interviewee who, if he quoted from Henry V, would be more likely to echo Pistol's servant than the King: "Men of few words are the best men".

He is the antithesis of a superstar, whose idea of a perfect day, recounted at Euro 2004, went: train, pick up kids from school, play with kids, put kids to bed, watch television. Doing just that while England were away, rather than sitting around in hotels in Vienna or Katowice, does not appear to have convinced him he did the wrong thing in turning his back on the team. "Up to now I've had no regrets whatsoever," he said. "Sven spoke to me and said the door's always open if I want to come back and I'm grateful for that, but I'm not sure that I will. The way I'm feeling now it hasn't really entered my thoughts."

An occasional sufferer from asthma and heatstroke, he has never greatly enjoyed summer tournaments and never been seen at his best in one. Before last season's FA Cup final, he admitted that failing to score for England in an extraordinary run that eventually reached 29 games before ending with an equaliser against Croatia in the Stadium of Light was playing on his mind.

Last week he added: "Part of the reason I did it [resign from England duty] was to prolong playing for United as long as I can. I know there's no guarantee that will happen, but I'm hopeful it will do. Maybe not scoring for so long played a tiny part but it wasn't one particular thing, not family or football, but all the things put together." And he did watch England play Poland ("A really tough game they did really well to win"); presumably because it was unthinkable to be out on a Wednesday night.

Unthinkable, too, that the unwanted tag "veteran" might soon be attached to any of United's clean-cut class of '91. Yet in less than two months' time Scholes turns 30, just ahead of Nicky Butt (January), Gary Neville (February) and David Beckham (May). Like them, he has run up some impressive statistics and is keen for more, starting with Fenerbahce's visit to Old Trafford for a Champions' League game on Tuesday.

If he recovers from injury, it will be his 81st European game for the club, still behind the record-holder, Ryan Giggs (92), but closing in on the injured Neville's 91 and Beckham's 83. One of his earliest appear-ances was in October 1996, when Tuesday's opponents became the first of 57 visiting sides to win a European tie at Old Trafford. Having already taken the points in Istanbul, United were not prevented from qualifying and went on to reach the semi-final, but a similar result could have alarming consequences.

In their opening game this time, United were 2-0 down to Lyon until being rescued by Ruud van Nistelrooy's double, Scholes admitting: "We could have been three- or four-nil down but we kept it down to two, and when you've got people like Ruud and can create chances for him, you've got every chance of coming back into it."

The same applies to Wayne Rooney, whose debut will be pencilled in against either Fenerbahce or Middlesbrough over the next eight days. Scholes, typically, will welcome it, even if his own position in the linking role between midfield and attack comes under threat: "It's great, everyone knows how well he did in the summer and what a great player he is. I think every player and every fan can't wait until he gets fit and starts playing for us. The manager has got ideas of where Wayne's going to play and if and where I play, so it'll take care of itself."

He should be safe enough, counting Ferguson as well as Sven Goran Eriksson among a distinguished list of admirers: Laurent Blanc, Ronald de Boer and George Best have all named him in the past as England's most consistent player. Best said of the void left in Eriksson's midfield, noting, perhaps, the revitalising effect that Alan Shearer's international retirement had on his club form: "It's a big loss for England and a big gain for Manchester United."

Fenerbahce may discover that, as Scholes and friends attempt to smooth out a stuttering start to their season. "There have been a lot of injuries and we knew that it was going to be a tough couple of months," Scholes said. "You just concentrate on playing and trying to win games. We have not won a lot of matches, but have not lost a lot either, so hopefully we can build some momentum up."

The man of few words has spoken. It is time to translate them into action.