Zidane spoke about how he was the greatest midfielder of his generation. Pirlo wrote in his autobiography that he was the only English midfielder back then with any elegance. Ronaldinho said that he wanted to be able to pass like him. Paul Scholes is a player whose currency of greatness can be measured in the things that other players have said about him.
That’s all well and good and potentially correctly attributed to the people who said it, but none of that lot actually played with him.
Today is the anniversary of Scholes’ Manchester United debut in a Coca-Cola Cup tie away at Port Vale, which United won 2–1. A 19-year-old Scholes played up front that day, with number ten on his back, diminutive with quick and pale legs. And he scored two goals—a lovely dink over the keeper that went in off the post and a belting header off a cross from the left-hand side.
His strike partner that evening was Brian McClair, so we caught up with Choccy to find out what Scholes was actually like to play and be alongside.
“I’m not entirely sure of the first time I trained with Paul, but I had seen him play for the Youth Team on several occasions. He always looked almost malnourished, but in every single game he did at least one extraordinary thing. A pass. A dribble. A goal. Something extraordinary, every time.
“That night against Port Vale, there were a number of the young lads playing: Scholes, Neville, Beckham, and Butt, for instance. I was nervous and excited for all of them. But, I’d played with them, trusted them, and they didn’t disappoint.
“As Paul moved from a forward into the outstanding midfield player that he, of course, became, his part in the team was integral. He was quiet, definitely, but confident in his ability too. And when he did speak, it was always worth paying heed to him.
“He did so many wonderful things in training and in matches; his goal against Barcelona in the Champions League is a completely wonderful memory. And, he merits the words of people like Pirlo and Zidane. Absolutely.
“The real pity for England is that the coaches couldn’t, or wouldn’t, build a national side around him.”
Brian's podcast, the brilliantly named Life With Brian, features interviews with the likes of Pat Nevin, Mani, and Henry Winter, and is available to listen to here. Give it a go. If you're a Manchester United fan, maybe you'd like to treat yourself to an exclusive Well Offside archive print of the boys warming up in 1999. It's glorious.