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The big interview: Paul Scholes – "People blamed Sven for me quitting England, but I'd played on the wing for Man United and scored a lot of goals"

“He’s got no chance – he’s a midget,” was Sir Alex Ferguson’s verdict when he first saw a young Paul Scholes playing in a youth team game for Manchester United in the late ’80s. Over the next two decades, the United manager enjoyed being proved resoundingly wrong as he watched Scholes grow to become the most decorated English footballer ever.

He was also the most revered English player of his era, feted by the game’s elite. Zinedine Zidane called him “the greatest midfielder of his generation”, and witness how quickly Andres Iniesta claimed his shirt after the 2011 Champions League Final. As for his United team-mates, Scholes’s unerring ability to find them with passes led to him being nicknamed ‘Sat-Nav’.

Having retired in the summer, the eminently likable and modest Scholes is more than happy to spend an afternoon with FFT to tackle your fine selection of questions. Behind the shy veneer he talks as astutely and effectively as he played the game. Over to you...

You’re a well-known asthmatic, Paul. How did that impact on your career?
Alfie Johnson, Shrewsbury
It was just something I had to live with, and take all the medication provided. As long as I looked after myself, it wasn’t a problem. The worst times were in winter when it was freezing and I’d get a bit chesty. One time I didn’t play for a few weeks because of a bad chest. I’d have a puffer before a game, and sometimes at half-time as well, but that was very rare.

You were at Maine Road cheering on Oldham Athletic against Man United in a cracking FA Cup semi-final in 1990. Who would you be cheering for now if the two teams met?
Peter Beaker, Rochdale
It would be United now. An awful lot is made of me being an Oldham fan – and I am one – yet when I was a kid I was a United fan too, but my dad probably couldn’t afford to take me to Old Trafford. He was an Oldham fan and it was only 10 minutes up the road, so it was easier to watch them.

How special was it to play your entire career at United alongside your mates from the ‘Class of 92’? Did you think so many of you would make it?
Andy Clarkson, Trafford
No, I didn’t have a clue. Looking back, when we were 17 and 18, we knew we had good teams playing for United’s ‘A’ and ‘B’ sides on Saturday mornings, but you couldn’t have guessed so many would play at the top level. Giggsy was already in the first team by then – there was never any doubt about him – but Becks, Nicky Butt, the Nevilles and me honestly didn’t know if we would be good enough.

What was the best goal you ever scored – that volley vs Bradford from the corner? Did you work on that in training? 
Ian Stewart, Beckenham
No, we never worked on it in training. Becks just took the corner, I gave him a little look to let him know I was there, he delivered it to where I wanted and I volleyed it in. We were on the same wavelength. I’m not sure that’s my best goal, though. My best is probably the one at Aston Villa when I volleyed it again from outside the area. That was more difficult.

You probably have the best technique of any English player in the last 20 years. How did you become that kind of footballer? And why doesn’t English football produce more players like you?
Thomas Kendrick, Cumbria
I became that type of player by watching and learning from people in my position, how they kept the ball. A lot of credit has to go to my United youth coach Eric Harrison: whenever we had a spare hour, he demanded that we practise, and thankfully it paid off. A lot of it was down to it being my natural game. I just concentrated on what I was good at. There have been a lot of technically gifted players in English football down the years, but for one reason or another it doesn’t seem to work. Players like Wayne Rooney, Jack Wilshere and Michael Carrick are as good as anyone technically. Maybe mentally there’s a problem – I just don’t know.

Sir Alex Ferguson once said that, for a laugh, you would aim a ball at his head every day in training. Is this true?
James Richards, Altrincham
Yes, that’s a bit true! I wouldn’t go for the manager, but I might hit one just by the side of him to try to wake him up. I wasn’t stupid enough to aim directly at his head. He would look around and see who did it, and even though I’d be standing in a crowd of about eight players, I would always get the blame! I do remember I once hit Phil [Neville] from distance with a cracker right on the head. It sent him flying – it was hilarious!

Have you ever been tempted to get an earring, shave a pattern on your head or get a big tattoo? What is the most ‘big-time’ you’ve ever acted? 
Pete Wright, Bolton
There’s no way in the world I’d get any of that done – no way. It seems you can’t be a footballer these days without getting a tattoo. I don’t think I’ve ever acted big-time. I could never jump to the front of a queue or anything like that: I would be too embarrassed.

Is it true that as you ran away to celebrate scoring your hat-trick goal against Poland at Wembley in 1999, you were thinking, ‘Oh no, I’m going to have to talk to the press now’?
Stuart Brooks, via email 
Yes, that thought would have gone through my head during the game in my younger days. But as I grew older it wasn’t really a problem.

I don’t think I’ve ever acted big-time. I could never jump to the front of a queue or anything like that: I would be too embarrassed

Whenever I’ve seen an interview with you, you seem sharp and articulate. Yet you’re known as very shy and quiet. Are you a different person away from the spotlight?
Alex Bateson, Newquay 
I am quiet and shy around team-mates and friends too. To be honest, I don’t really enjoy doing interviews, but it is part of the game so I don’t mind too much.

What did you say to Michael Owen after he took the ball off your toe to score against Argentina at France 98?!
Mark Perriera, West Bromwich
I’m just glad he took the ball off my foot because I’d missed a chance earlier on which might have seen us through. This was in a similar position. I shouted for it, but thankfully Michael knew what he was doing and scored an unbelievable goal.

You scored seven goals in your first 16 internationals, then seven more in your next 50. How would you explain that?
George Fink, via email
I just didn’t play as well in those next 50 games, simple as that!

Does it p*** you off that you were considered third-best to Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard and stuck on the left wing by Sven-Goran Eriksson?
Cathy Bates, Stockport 
No, not really. A lot of people said that and blamed Sven for me quitting England, but the truth is I played on the wing for Man United too and scored a lot of goals. But it didn’t work out like that for England. I’m not sure why. The truth is I got on great with Sven. I don’t think there’s anyone who didn’t – we all loved playing for him. He put me in that position because he thought Frank and Steven were better suited to playing in the middle than me. It was his choice, and it wasn’t my business to tell him where I should play. He thought they were better than me.

A lot of people blamed Sven for me quitting England, but the truth is I played on the wing for Man United too and scored a lot of goals

After the World Cup in South Korea and Japan, you complained that it was daft having a World Cup in such a hot country. What are your thoughts about Qatar hosting the competition in 2022?
Harry Westbury, Birmingham 
My first thought was, “I’m glad I’m not going there". Japan and Korea were very hot, so it was difficult for us to do well there. As it turns out, we didn’t do too badly, and were 1-0 up over Brazil in the quarter-finals at one stage. But that day the heat did get the best of us. It was so hot we couldn’t even warm up on the pitch. It wasn’t a World Cup I enjoyed. I just don’t know how it’s going to work in Qatar: I mean, they talk about these air-conditioned stadiums, but what about the supporters walking to the games? It is going to be about 45 degrees! They’ve got money to spend over there, but I do have my doubts.

Would you trade in your United trophies to win the World Cup with England? 
Liam Sayers, Leigh-on-Sea
Not in a million years. It would be unbelievable to win a World Cup, but no way.

Gary Neville said he felt his England career had been a waste of time. Is the sad truth that playing for England is increasingly becoming less attractive to players because there is so much hassle and negativity surrounding it? 
Tony Altinden, Warrington
Possibly. It just seems playing for England is a way to slag people off these days. There is probably too much pressure on everything to do with England, from the manager to the players. We’re expected to go to every World Cup and win, but I don’t know why. Look at our record over the last 50 years – we haven’t come close to winning the World Cup.

Xavi, Vieira, Zidane... loads of foreign stars name you as the best player they faced. Who was the best you played against? 
Connor Whiteley, Hove 
This is tough. Recently I’ve played against Xavi, Iniesta and Messi, and then there was Zidane, Rivaldo and Ronaldo. If I had to choose one it would be Zidane when I played against him during his time with Juventus, Real Madrid and France.

It just seems playing for England is a way to slag people off these days. We’re expected to go to every World Cup and win, but I don’t know why

Why are the current Barcelona side so good, and why could United get nowhere near them in two Champions League finals? 
Barry Smith, Cheadle Hume
They were just a better team on both occasions. They are just a brilliant team, who are really unselfish. They have a superstar in Messi, but he’s a team player as well. They don’t have players who try to show off. They play as 11 men, who work for each other, the way they get the ball back, and keep it. The way they play is a lesson to everyone. A lot must come from Guardiola, because he was a great player too. You can see he’s single-minded in what he wants and he gets it from them every week.

What was it like playing next to Roy Keane for so long? He was famously honest and frank with his team-mates – what was the worst thing he said to you?
Josh Chislehurst, Macclesfield 
Roy was unbelievable to play alongside and someone you could always trust. I soon learned that if you weren’t on your game he would be on top of you to make sure you were playing your part for the team. I had a few bollockings from him, but that made you work harder to avoid them. He was a great leader and captain: he drove us on and he was our manager on the pitch.

Fabio Capello tried to lure you out of retirement for the 2010 World Cup. How close did you come to saying yes? Any regrets at turning him down? 
Anna Freedland, Salford 
I did come close to saying yes, but in the end I didn’t want to go away from home for six weeks. I finished with England in the first place because I wanted to spend as much of the summer as possible with my family. It was tempting to come back to play in the World Cup, but my family was more important. When I was away with England at a World Cup or the Euros it always felt too long and I never really enjoyed them. I enjoyed playing the games; it was the bits in between I struggled with.

Please tell us: why do England keep failing at tournaments? Are some of the players too selfish?
Danny Mutch, Northampton  
Yes, I think so. We have some of the best players, but maybe some of them are out there for personal glory. We have the talent to do well at these tournaments, but every time we fail to win it. And when you play against the other best players in the world you have to wonder if our players are as good as they think they are.

I got a winner’s medal in 1999 but I don’t feel like I won it because I wasn’t involved in the final, so to me I only won it once, in 2008

How did you feel about missing the 1999 Champions League Final through suspension? Did winning in 2008 make up for it?
Sam Little, Tunbridge Wells
I got a winner’s medal in 1999, but I don’t feel like I won it because I wasn’t involved in the final, so to me I only won it once, in 2008. I don’t know if it made up for it, but I had to wait a lot longer than I expected to play in another Champions League final. It was great to win it in Moscow against Chelsea.

Which was the best United team you ever played in, Scholesy – 1999 or 2008?
Rob Willis, Hampshire
It’s hard to look past ’99. We had a different attitude in those days. We just went out to score more goals than the other team, home or away, and I loved being a part of that.

Years ago you admitted your tackling was “shocking”. Did you ever work on it or was it something you just never mastered the technique of? Roy Keane once said you never mistimed a tackle; they were all deliberate fouls. Is he right? 
John Canterbury, Chester 
I don’t think my tackling was that bad. Sometimes if someone had got me, I would have it in the back of my mind who it was, and I would try to bide my time to get them back... so I suppose Roy does have a point.

How did you feel when Arsene Wenger said you could have a “darker side” on the pitch? 
Tim Crossley, Ramsgate
When we played Arsenal, they were such a good footballing team that you had to get about them, and sometimes they didn’t like that. The team of Vieira and Petit was a bit different; a bit tougher, physically and mentally. I don’t know what he means about a darker side, but a bit of nastiness is not a bad thing. I was slightly dark, but not too dark!

What do you make of Gary Neville becoming a TV pundit? 
Dan Taylor, Telford
I think he’s brilliant. He always likes to talk, so he’s perfect for it!

Who would you like to see replace Sir Alex when he finally retires? 
Sandy Franklin, Melbourne
People have talked about Mourinho, maybe not so much now. It can change very quickly – it’s about who is successful at the time. I don’t think it matters if they are British or foreign, as you just want the best man for the job. I could see Ryan [Giggs] becoming manager. We’ve never spoken about it, but I think he would have the presence and the total respect of the players. I’m sure he’d do a great job, similar to Guardiola at Barcelona.

Sometimes if someone had got me, I would have it in the back of my mind who it was, and I would try to bide my time to get them back… so I suppose Roy does have a point

You once described finishing your career with boyhood idols Oldham Athletic as “a possibility”. How close did such a move come to happening? 
Dave Lucas, via Facebook
It never came close. If I’d felt better and I wasn’t required at United then I’d have considered it. And Oldham would’ve had to want me too. If circumstances had been different I maybe would have done it.

What’s the biggest hairdryer you’ve ever received from Fergie? When you refused to play in a League Cup game in 2001? 
Harvey Etchingham, Cardiff 
No, that wasn’t the worst. That was a stupid thing to do, but he just fined me and we got on with it. I remember at Newcastle once I came on as a sub when we were losing. We got back into the game, but then I gave the ball away in midfield and they went up the other end and scored, which lost us the match. He gave me a severe bollocking for that.

Were you shocked at Wayne Rooney publicly questioning United’s ambition last season? Gary Neville said he told him to apologise, did you have a word with him too?
Scott Paynton, Salford
I think he learned his lesson very quickly after that. He knew what he did was wrong: that no player at Man United should ever publicly question the manager; that if they have a problem they should see the manager about it. It wasn’t a nice time and Wayne might have been confused. We weren’t playing as well as he would’ve liked, but that happens sometimes. You just have to trust your team-mates. He apologised, the matter was done and dusted, and we ended up winning the league. I never spoke to him about it, but I was surprised. It isn’t something you expect to happen at Manchester United, so it was disappointing. It was a bit disrespectful to the club.

What was the moment when you realised you wanted to retire from the game? 
Daisy Houghton, Salford
I didn’t feel great in a few games after last Christmas. In the first half of the season I felt good, but in the Rangers Champions League game I got injured and never really recovered. It was just a groin injury, which should have been just a week out, but it ended up being about seven. After that, I could never get any freshness in my legs. They felt heavy all the time. I wasn’t feeling right in training and realised then it was time to go.

What’s the plan now, Paul? Do you just want the quiet life or would you like to become a coach or manager? 
Nick Malaperiman, Canada 
I would like to become a coach or a manager. I’ll start to do some coaching with the club, and see where that takes me. I’ll see if I enjoy it and if I’m any good at it. 

Scholes portraits: Jill Jennings (opens in new tab). From the December 2011 issue of FourFourTwo. Subscribe (opens in new tab)

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