Jim White

Scholes the next United boss but one?

Jim White

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This week, I found myself approaching an assignment with the giddy excitement of a 10-year-old. I was to meet someone who, to my mind, encapsulates all that is admirable about the game of football.

Paul Scholes has just published his autobiography and to launch it the formerly reticent one was required to undertake a round of interviews that redefined the term extensive. If not quite at Hollywood levels - the actress Uma Thurman was once obliged by the terms of her contract to sit through 1800 one-on-one media interviews in a fortnight in order to promote a film - the ginger genius was still in the midst of a punishing schedule when I was granted my 15 minutes with him.

Because of his previous reticence, Scholes was long ago written off by many as inarticulate, boring and lacking a sense of humour. As it transpires, he is none of those things.

Despite being bombarded with interest, despite being dozens of times asked the same questions (about Carlos Tevez and his own refusal to play in a game back in 2001) he was cheerful, sharp-witted and interesting. Funny too. He has a noticeable twinkle of amusement behind his eyes, a sense, no doubt, of the ridiculous circus into which he had unwittingly been plunged. He gave the impression that - given a choice - he would rather stick his head in a bucket of custard and gargle the national anthem than be subjected to six hours in a box at Old Trafford meeting a succession of gibbering fools. But being Scholes, he was prepared to do it to make the book work. And being a decent guy, he was not going to take out his frustrations on any of those asking the said stupid questions.

As it happens, even in a quarter of an hour, even in the midst of being obliged to do precisely what he least likes doing, there were hints that Scholes could be as gifted a commentator and analyst of the game as he was a player. Not that you would necessarily glean it from the pages of Paul Scholes: My Story, as bland and uninspired a volume as ever can have been extracted from a figure as interesting as this. But the fact is Scholes is a fascinating character.

Of course, there may have been something in his reputation that make his words seem so intriguing. This, after all, is the most technically gifted English footballer of his generation, a superb athlete, whose abilities on the pitch made everyone from Zinedine Zidane to Andres Iniesta look on in envy. This was a player who sang through his feet. Maybe whatever he had to say would be freighted with additional weight. But nonetheless his observations on the psychology of being stuck on the bench, on the selfishness of the top footballer, on the huge difference between trying to influence a result from the middle of the park and from the technical area, spoke of a fresh and different outlook. Take this about the sense of control he experienced when playing at the height of his powers:

"Being at your peak was a feeling that is hard to describe," he said. "Being 28, 29 here [at Old Trafford], going out almost knowing you are going to score goals, play well, you think you're invincible. When you got older, you felt different. It was almost as if anything could happen, you worried you might have a nightmare, that you'd be responsible for a right cock-up, there was no control. At your peak, you think you can do anything. When you get older it drifts from you, you lose that sense of certainty."

He is currently engaged on an apprenticeship as a coach in the United system, watching and learning. It's an informal education, a process taking in the reserves and the youth team, and a seat in the stands for every first-team game. The first problem he has encountered is a gap between the instinctive knowing what to do that he experienced when a player, and the need to articulate what he thinks should be done that is the lot of the coach. That, he says, is the hardest breach to overcome, the transition from the feet to the mouth.

But he is determined to do so. And my sense is, coaching is where his future lies. The media route taken by his old colleague, the increasingly sure-footed Gary Neville, holds little appeal. Besides, unlike some of his former youth team mates at United (mentioning no names, Robbie Savage) the sound of his own voice is not something he finds remotely appealing.

I suspect, given his sharp eye, his innate footballing intelligence and his determination to succeed at whatever he does, a future in a leading dug-out is inevitable.

The next United boss? Probably not. But the one after that is not a ridiculous proposition.

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