With 11 Premier League winners’ medals, two Champions League wins and 66 international caps to his name, there can be little doubt Paul Scholes will go down in the history books as one of the greats.
But should he have played for England for longer? And what does he make of Manchester United’s current midfield star Bruno Fernandes?
And could he have ever left Old Trafford?
In a wide-ranging interview on BBC Radio 5 Live’s Friday Football Social, Scholes tackled all these issues and more – in a cleaner fashion than he ever managed on the pitch.
‘I regret leaving England so soon’
Scholes starred for England at the 1998 World Cup and the 2000 Euros, but by the time Euro 2004 came around he had been moved to the left of a midfield four to accommodate Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard. He retired from international duty soon after at the age of just 29.
I had a young family at the time and going away for England for 10 days at a time, sometimes six weeks in the summer, it just wasn’t ideal and I wasn’t enjoying it. I know a lot was made of Sven-Goran Eriksson playing me on the left-hand side of midfield but that was never the problem.
My form in the last 20 or 30 caps wasn’t quite good enough and Steven and Frank were two top-class players who he went with centrally. I was on the left but I played there many times for United and was quite successful there, scored a few goals so it was never really why I left England. It was just a personal choice.
I do regret leaving England so soon. I went back to United and my football changed. I had been a player who was expected to score goals all the time for England, which I was judged on.
Sir Alex Ferguson saw that he wanted me to play well into my 30s and I needed a different position. I moved back and controlled games from midfield, sitting deep, and I was never that player for England.
I ended up playing there for five or six years and looking back playing there from 30-35 was probably the most enjoyable part of my career. I really enjoyed that position, I wasn’t scoring goals but to sit back and control games, I really enjoyed it. I finished with England too early to progress in that position.
I was tempted to come back, you’d hear whispers all the time but there was only the one time really officially.
It was before the World Cup in South Africa, I’d played well that season and they were struggling with a few injuries. Fabio Capello wanted me to come back, I got a phone call from Stuart Pearce who was on the staff.
I had a few days to think about it and I felt I was playing well enough, I just decided that it was wrong, I hadn’t been involved in qualifying and there were other players who had been in the squad for two years, being away from their families.
Capello didn’t ring me, maybe if he had it might have been different. Maybe he could have twisted my arm. Is it something I regret? Probably I do because at that time I was playing really well.
‘I was a liability’
Scholes scored 107 Premier League goals for United but ended his career playing deep in midfield, controlling games with his wide array of passing. He says he had to learn to enjoy not getting into the opposition’s penalty area.
I just accepted it, moving deeper. It happened before I retired with England, I was a bit of a liability in midfield because the only thought in my head was to score goals.
Sometimes, especially in Europe, we were getting overrun and I was getting destroyed. It must have been a nightmare for Roy Keane alongside me.
Sir Alex said I want you to sit. I remember thinking, ‘what’s the point of that’. In my first big game I think I got into their box once but the manager pulled me and said that was brilliant, you played the position properly.
There was no need for me to go and get involved up front as we had such good attackers. Hopefully you could get the ball to these players who could win you games of football.
‘I only had one phone call about leaving’
Scholes played his whole career at Old Trafford in two spells – coming out of a short-lived retirement to win a final Premier League. But could he have gone to the San Siro?
I was never ever made aware of any team coming in for me. I did have one phone call off an agent, Bryan Robson’s old agent, he rang me while we were away at Euro 2000 to ask me if I would be interested in going to Inter Milan but that’s the only phone call I ever had. I never heard anything after that and the manager never said anything to me.
I was playing at my boyhood club, I was a Manchester lad, we were winning trophies all the time. If the manager said to me that he didn’t want me I would definitely have gone if there was a big club abroad who wanted me but there was never any need to ever think about Barcelona, Real Madrid or AC Milan because I was at the biggest club in the world anyway.
We didn’t win as many Champions Leagues as we should have but we were every inch as good as those teams, if not better.
‘Fernandes has been brilliant but United are still behind’
Manchester United are three points outside of the top four in the Premier League as it stands – and are on an 11-match unbeaten run which has coincided with the arrival of Bruno Fernandes for £47m. So what does Scholes make of him?
The one thing with Bruno is he doesn’t look like a central midfielder to me, he’s an out and out number 10. He’s great on the ball, always on the half turn and he’s the link that United really needed.
They lacked that quality in midfield and since he came in he’s had that. He can feed the ball in to players, he’s got a great shot on him and he looks like a real leader as well. United had lacked that.
Whether he can play in midfield in a two, that’s yet to be seen. He’s more like an Eric Cantona, a Teddy Sheringham – he can beat players as well. He is somebody who brings what was sadly missing at Old Trafford and he seems to have livened up everyone. The team is playing well and they look like scoring goals.
They are still behind, but they have bought a brilliant player in who seems to have knitted it all together. They did have a really good group of players but missed that one person who can make a difference – like a David Silva or Kevin de Bruyne who can glue the team together with their attacking movements.
I still think they are a bit off the pace, they’ve looked good lately since Fernandes came in but Liverpool and Manchester City are streets ahead. There are three or four signings that can help but for the first time in a long time you feel like they could close the gap to the top.