Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Scholes lauded in testimonial

Scholes lauded in testimonial

For one who has longed appeared embarrassed by any sort of fuss, it might have been mortifying. There are images to avoid, of him being feted by Pele, Eric Cantona and Sir Alex Ferguson and tributes to ignore.

Pele made the trip to support Paul Scholes
GettyImagesPele made the trip to support Paul Scholes

Zinedine Zidane, the shining talent of his generation, had hailed an "almost untouchable". Xavi and Andres Iniesta, whose ethos and idealism is defining the current era, traded praise in the programme the way they exchange passes on the pitch. Even the notoriously unsentimental Roy Keane turned up to pay his respects.

Paul Scholes' retirement ranked as the summer's least surprising news, his return, for one night only, the perfect prefix to the season for Manchester United. With Old Trafford packed to the rafters, a maximum of 19 Premier League games will not boast bigger gates this season. It was one sign of appreciation for a lifetime's service that included 676 games and 150 goals. There were others.

Less than 48 hours before the Community Shield, for instance, Ferguson fielded virtually his strongest available side. Manchester City matters for United but so does their monosyllabic maestro. Besides the passing range that led Iniesta to put the Scholes' Champions League final shirt on display in his house, there are differing reasons, ones of attitude as well as ability.

For all the international acclaim, this is a local hero. "I hope I've given the fans a few decent memories," he said with typical understatement. There is something quintessentially Mancunian about the down-to-earth Scholes. His healthy disdain for the trappings of fame made him an endearing antidote to the age of celebrity. It also meant New York Cosmos, intrinsically associated with glitz and glamour in their original incarnation, were an incongruous choice of opponent.

Time may lend a sense of history to a celebration of United's recent past, though. Part iconic brand, part ambitious concept, only part team, this was the Cosmos' first game for 26 years. The revived club, aspiring for membership of Major League Soccer, was true to its roots by naming a side that was a combination of locals and all stars. For Pele, Johan Cruyff and Carlos Alberto, read Patrick Vieira, Robbie Keane and Fabio Cannavaro, big names representing the Big Apple, albeit only once.

The mix-and-match approach offered intrigue, as well as the somewhat surreal sight of Gary Neville lining up against United for the final 25 minutes. It also allowed the Premier League champions a stroll and provided a stage suitable for Scholes; the 36-year-old legs are untroubled by the relaxed pace while the vision and talent to control a game remains.

There was no need for the sort of contrived goal that can be a feature of testimonials; barely eight minutes had gone by when a rasping 20-yard shot flew past Brad Friedel. Too self-effacing to really celebrate, the architect was the man who, as the chant went, scores goals: Scholes.

Paul Scholes' contrbution is marked by the great man while Sir Alex Ferguson was there too
GettyImagesPaul Scholes' contrbution is marked by the great man while Sir Alex Ferguson was there too

Unlike most beneficiaries, too, Scholes, didn't take the penalty that invariably gets awarded on such occasions. It was legitimate, too, as Ashley Young was upended, and walloped in by Wayne Rooney. He, like Nani and Young, played for more than an hour, hardly suggesting the Community Shield figures at the top of Ferguson's priority list. Anderson, Danny Welbeck and Mame Biram Diouf (two), three of the half-time replacements, added further goals.

As his side conceded, the Cosmos' manager was serenaded. Not a regular experience for men in the visitors' dugout, but then few are as beloved at Old Trafford as Cantona. The night's boos were reserved for Manchester City's director of football development when Vieira made his entrance.

Predictably, there was none of the acrimony of some of his past visits although Dane Murphy perhaps the final victim of the Scholes sliding tackle. Unlike some of its predecessors, it went unpunished. Ferguson watched on with a grandfatherly grin. Scholes had, the Scot had joked, lost about six months of his career due to suspensions.

The definitive conclusion came at Wembley in May, the postscript ending with a quarter of an hour remaining. The baton was passed on to another Youth Cup-winning generation as Paul Pogba replaced Scholes.

"He wanted to go out at the top and I think he made the right decision," Ferguson said. "We'll all miss him, of course. I can pay our Scholesy no greater compliment to say he was an absolute genius of a footballer." Sentiments that the Stretford End, not to mention Xavi and Iniesta, were unlikely to disagree with.

MAN OF THE MATCH: Paul Scholes - Sometimes the romantic choice is also the right one. He was run close, however, by Brad Friedel, whose first-half saves indicated that the 40-year-old has a strong case to be Tottenham's first-choice goalkeeper this season.

MANCHESTER UNITED VERDICT: The amount of time Rooney, Nani and Young played prompted the thought that all will have bit-part roles at Wembley. After the summer sales of Wes Brown and John O'Shea, Chris Smalling's appearance at right-back indicated that he might spend some of the season there.

NEW YORK COSMOS VERDICT: A run-out for the retired and a learning experience for the native New Yorkers. One of them, Yanik Reyering, had the chance to partner Cannavaro in defence and pulled off a goal-saving block from a Scholes shot. But whether the Cosmos become a force again depends more on whether they have a league to join.