I am agonising on the horns of an impossible dilemma. Paul Scholes, a (deep breath) Manchester United is about to play his final game. I really hate Manchester United, but I seem to love Paul Scholes. Do I weep or do I celebrate? How do I process this awful dichotomy? My mind is torn, my emotions divided, my thoughts in turmoil.
An epidemic of football retirements has broken out in the north-west. Mr Ferguson has abdicated as supreme emperor of Manchester United. He has sensibly passed his inheritance and the impossible weight of expectation to his adopted son David, rather than his natural son Darren (who has just taken his own team down to League One). In a related incident across the city, S. Mancini has been encouraged into a premature retirement for failing to win the league at the same time as Mr Ferguson. On which mathematical basis alone, 20 others must follow.
Some younger men have taken exceptionally early retirement. Mr. Carragher will have played 737 games for Liverpool without a league title, but is still only 35. Mr. Beckham will have clocked up almost as many hairstyles as he kicks his final golden ball, takes his final curtain and leaves the stage for lesser mortals. I only wish my pension arrangements were as favourable.
I won’t miss any of these characters – any more than I missed Top Cat, Desperate Dan or Lord Snooty when I grew out of reading the Beano. But I will miss is the shy and finally-retiring Mr Scholes.
Paul Scholes. A veritable Billy Wizz of activity and movement on the pitch. A Dennis the Menace of a tackler. The man with the football brain operated by the very best of the Numskulls.
I once watched him from high up in the stands play in the first Cup Final at the new Wembley Stadium. Pick your own cliché. He conducted, orchestrated and played the first violin at the same time as being chess grandmaster, with the combined perfect movement of the knight, bishop and queen masquerading as a humble pawn. I am sure people lower down in the stadium didn’t even notice him. he was like some invisible assassin going about his business with lethal effect.
Yes, like a humble pawn. Going about his craft without flamboyance, petulance or attention-seeking. Or as we used to call them at school – a humble prawn. Whichever you like – he is small, muscular, has panoramic vision and is red.
Red haired and red-shirted. And therein lies my dilemma, my paradox, my quandary. I admire the man but I hate his shirt.
Football is a game of complete prejudice. People who don’t understand this, will never be able to appreciate or enjoy it. They will tut-tut and sigh whilst watching Match of the Day and become increasingly miserable as they attempt to apply the normal standards of human behaviour to the players, managers and fans. “Why can’t they all play fairly and get on together?” is an utterly meaningless and irrelevant question. Why would they?
So for example, the assessment of a referee is absolutely nothing to do with his fitness, accuracy, control or impartiality. In fact I would challenge anyone to find an operational football fan who understands that last word.
No, the quality of a referee’s performance is entirely a factor of how many marginal, dubious or even straight-forward decisions he has given for or against your team. If he gives you a penalty he is a right. if he gives them a penalty he is wrong. It is as black and white as that. Or as red and blue, depending on your colours.
Like a driver climbing into their car, a perfectly sensible and reasonable human sitting down in front of a game of football suspends all their normal faculties of judgement and behaviour and becomes opinionated, critical and always right. And anyone who disagrees is, frankly, a blind idiot.
And so it is, at the age of about 11, I chose to love Oldham Athletic and to hate Manchester United. Had I weighed up the evidence before me objectively (Best, Law and Charlton versus Bryceland, Bebbington and Fryatt) and forecasted the prospects of future enjoyment (umpteen league titles and cups versus 30 seasons mainly languishing in the lower divisions), I might have come to a different conclusion.
But all of that was and remains irrelevant. The football club chose me. I was born in Boundary Park hospital, lived on Boundary Park Road and they play at Boundary Park. The planets were aligned even before I was conceived. Indeed, if the story is true, I was poking my head out between my mothers knees to check out the ticket prices as we rattled up the cobbled streets on the way to the Maternity Unit.
And after forty years of hurt and riveting mediocrity, a couple of cup semi-final defeats to the arch enemy and some flirtations with relegation, I wouldn’t and couldn’t change a thing. We are looking forwards to facing Mr Ferguson (jnr) in League One again next season.
Singing: Oldham till I die, I’m Oldham till I die. I know I am, I’m sure I am, I’m Oldham till I die.
So the thing about Paul Scholes is this. He has been a wonderful player. He is a humble, self-effacing family man. He spurns publicity and attention. He is the complete opposite of your tabloid cartoon petulant, self-serving, philandering modern-day premiership footballer. He is a throwback to a former age of honest, loyal, hard-working, team-playing but highly talented footballers, in the mould of a Colin Bell, a Peter Beardsley a Stuart Pearce, a Kevin Keegan or (dare I say it) a Bryan Robson. Players who took baths after a game and went out for a beer. I hate Manchester United, but yes, I love Paul Scholes.
There is one fact which might just be my mental salvation. One thing which enables me to hold these two entirely contradictory and opposing beliefs in the same head. Here it is. Paul Scholes is a committed, staunch and enthusiastic Oldham Athletic supporter.
For this final reason, and for this reason alone, I will maintain my sanity. And I wish him a long and happy retirement. Or even better – just one season playing for the team he really loves, but was never quite good enough to be chosen by.
As ever – do let me know if you enjoyed this !