Wednesday, March 2, 2011

A Trio of Distinction

Ryan Giggs, Gary Neville and Paul Scholes, three names that will always be synonymous with Manchester United, Sir Alex Ferguson and rampant success. It is unlikely that ever again in club football with the current environment that we will see three such long and durable overlapping careers all in the colours of one club.

Two of the three have had very a very different few weeks with Gary Neville realising that his body was no longer able even if his mind was announcing his immediate retirement. Giggs, still performing at the highest level has decided to sign for one more year and will probably ride off into the sunset at the same time as his manager and mentor Sir Alex. There is no sign as yet from the publicity shy Scholes whether he will look to carry on after this season.

Gary Neville has unified opinion throughout his career by becoming one of the most despised opposition players of his era. His shop steward attitude and penchant for winding up opposition fans and constant arguing with referees has made him a universal target. Neville however has not cared a jot and instead has simply made a career of being one of the most consistently excellent fullbacks this country has ever produced. Whilst his brother Phillip was still at ManYoo and being picked for England, the Nevilles developed a reputation for being error and gaff prone but the reality was that the elder brother has always remained a player of the highest calibre. Indeed Phil has also go on to forge a successful and well respected career as captain of Everton, admittedly at a notch down the Premiership ladder.

There is a suspicion that had Gary Neville been a modicum less hateful then further success could have followed. Seeing him as a young right sided defender blossoming at Euro '96 made me think he was the future England captain in waiting so assured were his performances. He was also underrated as an attacking force forging a devastating overlapping partnership with David Beckham for many years. No one outside of the Red half of Manchester or Surrey will mourn his retirement but he should be remembered as an extremely fine defender.

Ryan Giggs has been one of the most celebrated and recognised players since he burst onto the scene as a precociously talented seventeen year old with an awful barnet. Ongoing hamstring problems and a frustrating lack of end product made Giggs one of the most exciting, enigmatic and frustrating talents that the the British game has seen. After the initial early brilliance there was also a suspicion that he never quite hit the heights again after that memorable goal in 1999 against Arsenal in the FA Cup replay but that may be due to his playing within himself slightly due to those dodgy hamstrings.

In the past few years, Giggs has reinvented himself as a more thoughtful and influential midfielder and whilst Player of the Year and BBC Sports Personality awards were probably more for sentimental reasons than anything else, it is without question that Giggs deserves recognition for his long and medal laden service. Whatever the debate on where Giggs truly stands against the greats, one cannot dispute his record and medal haul and the simply reality is a team with that amount of success would not carry a player for so long were he not integral to that success. England fans will also rue the day he chose Wales as Giggs' career has coincided with an inexplicable period where England have not been able to produce a single decent naturally left footed midfielder since John Barnes. Giggs may well have produced the balance to take England from having been an occasional quarter final team to a real force. Giggs last night equaled Bobby Charlton's appearances record for ManYoo, an incredible feat and done with considerably more hair.

Paul Scholes, despite being the quietest of the three might just be the best. Whilst it helps that he plays in a team that usually has the bulk of the possession, the simple efficiency of Scholes' play has ensured he is still able to contribute fully even in his elder years. Gerrard may be more dynamic, Lampard scores more goals but of the three, Scholes is the only one who can dictate the rhythm of a game in the way that a Xavi or a Zidane or possibly even a Fabregas in a few more years can. That, allied to his ability to time runs into the box, a poachers eye for goal and prodigious shooting means that Scholes can lay claim to being one of the great - and most strangely underrated - English midfielders of all time. This blog would certainly have him ahead of Robson, Wilkins or Gerrard. Hoddle had infinitely more skill but he was unfortunately a luxury player. Scholes is probably just behind Charlton because of fewer goals and the young Gascgoine who was simply a level above anything else that England has ever produced.

Scholes has played out his career with the minimum of fuss accumulating a huge cabinet of medals along the way. His partnership with Roy Keane in it's heyday was one of the most formidable ever formed in club football and it is hard to judge how many of his teammates have been made to look much better than they actually were by his well balanced and timed passing. To have such talent whilst remaining ginger throughout his career is a truly staggering achievement. One suspects that were Ferguson able to turn the clock back ten years on of these three, for all the public proclamations about Giggs, it would actually be Paul Scholes who would get the nod. Couple the riding of these three into the sunset with the surely impending retirement of Ferguson at the end of next season and you start to sense that the cycle of success for ManYoo might be coming to an end sooner rather than later - no nonsense.