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Scholes walks away on his own terms

Paul Scholes (Photo credit should read PAUL ELLIS/AFP/GettyImages)
Manchester United midfielder Paul Scholes announced his retirement on Saturday.
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Leander Schaerlaeckens

Leander Schaerlaeckens has written about soccer for The New York Times, The Guardian, ESPN The Magazine and World Soccer. Follow him on Twitter.

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In a lot of ways, Paul Scholes, who announced his second retirement from the sport on Saturday, was the perfect Manchester United player for the Sir Alex Ferguson era.

Like his much-laurelled manager, who announced his own retirement earlier this week, the 38-year-old Scholes was as unfussy as they come. He had no use for pomp, circumstance or anything else that needlessly complicated the core business of playing football. He kept things simple. Simple quotes, simple haircut. No flair, no fringe, no froufrou. He played that way, too. And that made him perhaps the finest playmaker of the past 20 or so years.

Born and raised in Manchester, he joined United at 14 in spite of his asthma and a disease affecting his knees, and never did leave. He spent 19 seasons on the first team after coming up in United’s “golden generation,” along with David Beckham, Ryan Giggs, Nicky Butt and the Neville brothers Gary and Phil.

He glided about the field, a shock of red hair in the red United jersey, delivering balls both short and long, fast and slow, high and low, to the wings or down the middle. Seldom did they fail to arrive, or did he get robbed of the ball. He could do it all. It’s just that he would never let on that he could unless he really had to. Such embellishment would be superfluous, that would only get in the way of the soccer.

Scholes led by example, with the elegant whoosh of his feet. And what an example it was. He could play as an attacking midfielder and take on some of the scoring load – bagging 105 Premier League goals in all – or he could play provider. He was durable and seemingly impervious to fluctuations in form. His only weakness was a penchant for ill-advised tackles, often punished with yellow cards. The 97 he bagged in total – along with four red cards – are the third-most ever by a Premier Leaguer. His 32 cautions in the UEFA Champions League are a record.

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But Scholes was self-effacing and had an urge to sacrifice himself for his team that bordered on the servile. He was at once madly in love with the sport but so disinterested in its spoils and attention that he’d seemingly do just about anything to misdirect the public eye someplace else. Tellingly, he quit playing for England at 29, long before he’d outlived his utility to his country. The blindingly bright glare on the national team wasn’t for him. He once admitted that he feared playing well early on in his career for the attention it might bring him. So as soon as he realized that he could, he quit England and focused on his club career. He preferred the relatively hushed atmosphere of United anyway. Or so we surmise – it’s not like he ever spoke about this, or much else of consequence, publicly.

After the 2010-11 season, he retired. But not five months later he was back in the United first team, after Ferguson had pleaded with him to turn in the coach’s whistle he’d assumed for his boots. This time around though, there seems a finality to it. “Yes I am finally hanging up my boots for good,” Scholes said.

This is rather inconvenient news to Ferguson’s successor David Moyes. Aside from the obvious use Scholes still has even to a team of such heights as United at his geriatric soccer age, his role in a rather tenuous managerial succession could have been vital. Scholes will likely stay on with United in some capacity, but as a player, he could have helped reinforce the message the club brass – which now includes Ferguson – are desperate to send out: nothing has changed. But with him gone, things are changed, and an already porous equation grows shakier.

By appointing Moyes, a near carbon copy of Ferguson’s some two decades ago, United hopes to make the transition away from its 26-year manager and club icon as smooth as possible. But star forward Wayne Rooney wants out. Scholes, as a long-timer, could have helped retain the club culture in the locker room even as several key players might leave.

Even if it isn’t meant to – “The team has the right balance and will continue to thrive under the leadership of David Moyes,” Scholes has said, sounding eerily like Ferguson – his departure from the player ranks could be perceived by his peers as a vote of no confidence in Moyes. For the Moyes succession plan to work, United needs the club climate and working environment to resemble the one under Ferguson as much as possible. In his quiet grace Scholes embodied all that was good and right about United in the Ferguson years. It was the stability afforded by a small handful of unshakable anchors such as him that helped the club weather the stormier days, when scandal or drama did rock the boat.

It was fitting, perhaps, that Scholes should exit along with Ferguson. Their careers are inextricably intertwined, as Scholes came of age during and helped bring on Ferguson’s headiest days, as part of the generation that won the 1998-99 treble. He was on Ferguson’s team for 11 of the 13 Premier League titles he would win, and both Champions League trophies.

But it is an appropriate exit. With all the hubbub surrounding Ferguson’s exit down the red carpet, fewer people might realize that Scholes is slipping out the back door. And Scholes wouldn’t want it any other way.

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