Paul Scholes and why size should not matter
Written by Simon Austin — October 9, 2017
The first time I clapped eyes on Paul Scholes I thought: ‘too small’. But that’s when nurturing talent comes in. And you’re rewarded, hugely. (Sir Alex Ferguson, Nov 2014).
GORDON STRACHAN’S explanation for Scotland’s failure to reach the World Cup finals was certainly unexpected: genetics.
"In the last campaign we were the second smallest, apart from Spain,” the Scotland manager said. "Genetically, we are behind. Maybe we get big women and men together and see what we can do.”
Coming up with examples of superlative smaller players to debunk Strachan’s theory isn't too difficult:
Lionel Messi: 5 ft 7.
Xavi: 5ft 7.
Maradona: 5ft 5.
Strachan himself is only 5 ft 5, yet as a player would have been a contender for a British XI for much of his career. The ‘biggest is best’ theory falls down not only with midfielders and forwards, but defenders too.
Former Italy centre half Fabio Cannavaro, the 2006 world player of the year, is 5 ft 9, as is another of his compatriots, the all-time great Franco Baresi.
The rule doesn’t even really apply to goalkeepers (even though England, more than any of the other major European leagues, seems preoccupied with the size of keepers). For example, Iker Casillas, a man who won every major trophy with Spain and Real Madrid, is 5 ft 11.
Strachan’s comments have, understandably, caused much amusement and ridicule. But he has touched on something. How many of us know of Academy coaches and scouts who prize size above all else?
At youth level there is pressure for results and size can make a big difference at younger ages. Biobanding has done much to alleviate the issue, but a problem remains.
That's why the story of Paul Scholes is instructive and proves looks aren’t everything when it comes to young players. In November 2014, Sir Alex Ferguson gave an interview to the Big Issue and recounted a conversation he once had with the President of Mexico at Harvard University.
“We talked a bit about how you pick the stars of the future and nurture them, something I’ve done all my life in football,” Ferguson said. “I was very aware that the first time I clapped eyes on Paul Scholes I thought: ‘too small’. But that’s when nurturing talent comes in.
“And you’re rewarded hugely. It’s a fantastic challenge but I’m speaking mostly about leadership and I’m comfortable doing that.”
Eric Harrison was Academy boss when Scholes and the Class of 92 were coming through at United.
“He [Scholes] was tiny,” Harrison said in an interview in 2008. “David Beckham was as small then, too, but Scholes is still the same size. Not that it matters. He has no real pace, no strength, but he is clever and has quick feet.
“Like all creative players who can pass he scores spectacular goals. But he also scores them from everywhere - headers, tap-ins and long shots.”
And last year the former United winger Lee Sharpe recalled a brilliant story about Ferguson and a group of senior pros going to watch Scholes at The Cliff: “[Bryan] Robson turns to the manager and says, 'Who are you keeping, who are you letting go?'
"And he obviously said, 'We're keeping Beckham, Butt, Neville, this lad, this lad, this lad's going, and we're not sure about the little red-head in midfield.'
"Then Scholesy gets the ball on the edge of the box, fakes to shoot and drags it, defender slides past him, fakes to shoot again and drags it, and another midfielder slides past him, shuffles between the two centre-halves, fakes to shoot, keeper goes down onto one knee and Scholesy scoops it and dinks it into the bottom corner.
"And Robson turns to the manager and went, 'Are you sure you know what you're talking about?'”
Scholes' story shows why size shouldn't matter. Needless to say, later on in his career no-one mentioned how big he was. This is what they did say though:
Xavi Hernandez: Paul Scholes is a role model. For me – and I really mean this – he's the best central midfielder I've seen in the last 15, 20 years.
Socrates (Brazil): Good enough to play for Brazil. I love to watch Scholes, to see him pass, the boy with the red hair and the red shirt.
Zinedine Zidane: My toughest opponent? Scholes of Manchester. He is the complete midfielder.
Marcello Lippi: Paul Scholes would have been one of my first choices for putting together a great team.
Laurent Blanc: I tell anyone who asks me – Scholes is the best English player.
Sir Bobby Charlton: Many great players have worn the shirt of Manchester United. And in so many ways Scholes is my favourite.
Roy Keane: No celebrity bullshit, no self-promotion – an amazingly gifted player who remained an unaffected human being.
Sir Alex Ferguson: One of the greatest football brains Manchester United has ever had.
Edgar Davids: Every one of us should emulate him. We can all learn from Paul Scholes.
Ryan Giggs: I’d go for Scholesy as the club’s greatest ever player. I’ve seen him do things that no other player can do.