Byline: IAN CHADBAND
WHEN Manchester United's press officer said Paul Scholes would have a chat, the immediate reaction was that this seemed about as likely as Malcolm Glazer swanning into the Stretford End with a Liverpool scarf on. What, Scholesy, Salford's very own Garbo?
Nobody ever thought talk was cheaper.
It seemed even more surprising because ever since he had announced his international retirement after Euro 2004 and then endured by his standards a sub-par season to reflect Manchester United's own ailing campaign, Scholes seemed to have taken on a bit of the feel of yesterday's man, forgotten amid all the current drooling over Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard.
Yet as he sat in their training complex at Carrington admitting openly and honestly to his and United's failings this year while outlining his enthusiasm to be a part of a new Old Trafford dynasty in his thirties, you remembered why the little man remains such a big threat to Arsenal in tomorrow's FA Cup final. The quiet man is never more dangerous than when springing from the shadows.
"My form's not been great and I'm disappointed with that. Twelve goals, I'd liked to have got more than that but it's just not happened for me," shrugged Scholes, before adding with a grin: "But hopefully I've one more big game left in me this season."
It would surprise no-one. Down the years, Scholes, who enjoyed one dazzling scoring streak before Christmas, has come up trumps so often in big games for United - think of those critical goals en route to their 1999 Champions League triumph - that Arsenal can hardly afford not to be on their guard against the jackal whose strike dumped them out of last year's Cup.
Yet while that Villa Park semi had a must-win feel for United, Scholes fancies tomorrow as an even more critical deal for both clubs. "Because not winning something for a club like us or Arsenal is disastrous, really. There are going to be years when you don't win trophies but at big clubs they don't come often," said the man who's gunning for his 12th major winner's medal in as many years.
"It's simple; it's a massive game and somebody's going to come away with nothing. We have to do our best to make sure it's not us."
The odds, he accepted, were probably against United. "It's obvious we're not playing as well as we would like and Arsenal are in great form. I think you have to say they're going to be favourites."
Yet old superiority complexes die hard. "Still, though, we fancy ourselves whoever we're playing. We still feel we're capable of beating anyone.
Hopefully, we can do well for a third time against Arsenal this season."
At Carrington, it was impossible to escape a sense of quiet desperation about the need for a Reds' victory. With players not allowed to talk about the takeover - reporters could be heard muttering Fawlty-like "I mentioned Glazer once but I think I got away with it" - the feeling is of a club and a team at the crossroads, urgently seeking comfort from that old drug of success.
a United revival Scholes himself is a symbol of those more certain times, the local lad who at 30 embodies United's spirit as obviously as Roy Keane.
He's heard plenty of 'crisis at United' stuff before.
Doubtless he's heard, too, all the widespread theories about this year's decline, whether it be talk of underperforming stars like himself or of a manager past his sell-by date or of a flawed, deeply dull 4-5-1 system which supposedly betrayed the club's attacking tradition. …