The truth will be revealed.
Ahab had Moby Dick. Quint had Jaws. Don Quixote had, er, windmills.
Point is, I have Paul Scholes.
I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, How has a stout Englishman with a studio apartment and a Playboy subscription just put himself in the company of three of literature’s greatest questers? I know you were thinking the word “questers.” I’m on to you.
To answer your slightly hurtful question, these great men and I have two things in common.
The all-consuming need to hunt down the evil of our particular world and eradicate it, so that we may finally live in peace.
And a drinking problem.
Our story starts with the latter.
“An office is no place for a private investigator.”
I intended to say this to no one, or perhaps myself, as I opened the front door of my apartment building. As it happened, humanity hadn’t vanished en masse during the night, and several passers-by hit me with glances containing varying degrees of quizzicality.
Undeterred, I made my way to my favorite pub, the Thumping Griffin.
A pub, unlike an office, is a semi wonderful place for a private investigator. Particularly one who deals mainly in fraudulent bankers and cheating spise (plural of “spouse”). When called by a weeping wife, certain she’s being cuckholded, it often takes no more than a cursory description of the man for me to know if he’s been in the Thumping Griffin within the past fortnight.
Of course, that information is rarely helpful.
But it’s a start.
My shepherd’s pie floated from the kitchen to my booth, borne aloft by the hammy forearm of my least favorite cook, Jean-Louis. Jean-Louis is less than happy to be churning out shepherd’s pie and black pudding suppers in northwest England, and it shows in his cooking. At the risk of revealing too much brilliance at once, I’ll hazard a guess that his delicate French palate is offended by the ubiquitous “brown sauce” lopped onto every dish he serves.
Working over the pie and a pint, I reviewed my case logs.
December is a bad month for private investigators. Christmas is right around the corner, and nebulous concepts like love and joy swoop crazily through the air like lame pigeons. People become less suspicious and more trusting. No one wants to confirm their dark fears about the neighbors, or the cousin who’s been acting a bit queer since his holiday in Romania.
Plus everyone’s broke.
This lull allowed me to focus on the one case that connects me, at least in my mind, with the legends mentioned earlier. This case, again, is Paul Scholes.
Yes, that Paul Scholes. The five-foot-seven ginger from Salford, England.
The same one who has been rated by everyone from Xavi to Zinedine Zidane to Brazil’s own philosopher-footballer Socrates as one of the best midfielders ever to play the game.
I’ve pored over them so much that the case notes read like a missive from a long-lost lover. If someone happened to break into my nondescript apartment in my thoroughly ordinary neighborhood and swiped this generic notepad from my boring desk, they’d find something that looked suspiciously like the ravings of a football-obsessed stalker. Page after page of season statistics, augmented with the good stuff: anecdotal evidence.
Like the goal that he scored against Middlesbrough when Roy Keane still suited up for the Reds – an impossible shot. Thirty yards from goal, the ball coming from his right, and Scholes put a right-footed shot on a string into the top near corner, drawing it in like a British Open winner’s 3-wood to the 18th green.
Or the dipping surface-to-air missile he launched against Aston Villa. The ball came in from a corner kick and bounced into the heavens off a defender’s head. Scholes took three steps, planted his left leg, and volleyed a topspin shot from twenty five yards that shook the underside of the crossbar and slammed over the goal line.
Or, my personal favorite, this little story from teammate Rio Ferdinand about when Scholes gets a little cocky: “He’ll do ridiculous things in training like say, ‘You see that tree over there?’ – it’ll be 40 yards away – ‘I’m going to hit it’. And he’ll do it.”
These are not things that a man from England should be able to do. Only a handful of humans in history have been shown to be capable of feats like this, and they’re from exotic, wild places like Brazil and Argentina and Suriname and, well, France.
Point is, no scrawny, carrot-haired lad from greater Manchester should possess the kind of rocket right leg and inch-perfect football brain that Scholes has. While some may call him the best midfielder ever to come from England, I’ll call him the best midfielder ever made in England.
And there’s a difference.
It’s no wonder they call him SatNav.
If I’m honest, I haven’t had anything close to a breakthrough on the Scholes case in nearly twenty five years. Back in my apartment, with the telly tuned to a football match between two once-great English sides who have fallen on hard times (which describes just about everyone), I cast my mind back to the days when this quest began.
I was a better footballer than Paul Scholes.
This is not fiction. I, Walter Steven (Wally) Narbridge, attended the same high school as the legend. We called this school “The Mouthful,” or just “The Mouth” for short. With a name like Cardinal Langley Roman Catholic High School, you can understand why.
But back to my truth-telling. Nearly every day, we’d have a football game after school let out. Two captains, Rock Paper Scissors for first pick, and goals with rusted posts and crossbars held together with netting that looked the work of a drunken spider.
In every one of these games, I was picked before wee Pauly Scholes. I remember the little lad, as is natural when one of your schoolmates becomes a superstar. Go ahead, talk to anyone in those after school games. Scholes was not among the top players.
Sure, he had some skill. He knew what to do with the ball, and you could see some flashes of better than average play when he had the space to play in. But he was slow, and any pressure turned him into a quivering ball of redheaded gelatin. And his shots. Oh, dearie me, his shots.
The boy simply couldn’t hit the target. He didn’t have much power, even though he stood just about at the height he stands now. But he had these wild ideas that he could bury goals from anywhere. He’d get two yards of space outside the 18 yard box and fire off a weak spinner that came closer to being a throw-in than a goal kick.
He was a shy boy, but he had a pugnacity on the pitch. That’s about the only thing that hasn’t changed since then.
I’ve watched countless hours of Manchester United games, and more online behind-the-scenes features than you can shake a stick at, and I still see his eyes light up as the ball comes to him in space, as they did back then. I still see the head flip to the side and the piston legs churn into bone-shattering tackles, as so often happened after school.
But now, aside from that, I see his technical ability. He can drop a pass into a window-washer’s bucket from sixty yards away. His right foot can power footballs into goals at speeds approaching those of a fighter jet. He has vision and anticipation like a dachshund has back problems.
Ok, forget the last one. But I’m on a roll.
What I’m wondering is, how did this all happen?
How did a knock-kneed runt from the bumpy schoolyard pitch become one of the most highly-respected footballers on the planet?
My theory? Well, let’s wait a bit. Maybe you’ll see where I’m going with this.
Alex Ferguson, the manager of Manchester United, sent a scout to The Mouth in our final year of school, to keep tabs on a boy who sometimes played in our after school games. I forget the lad’s name, he was two years behind Scholesy and me. I think he turned out to be an interior decorator.
Having this scout watch a few of our skirmishes was the closest any of us had ever come to being rated by a club. Everyone always talked about their cousin who had trials at Newcastle, or their friend who went to Man City’s academy. But none of us were daft enough to think that we were good enough to make it.
When he saw the strange man at the side of our pitch the first time, he was nervous. The boy always seemed nervous, come to think of it. He asked us who he was.
The look that came into his eyes upon hearing it was a scout was nothing short of maniacal. He played that day like a boy possessed. And not in a good way. Less “playing like a man possessed by the touch of Maradona and the vision of Lothar Matthaus”, and more “playing like a man possessed by the spirit of an angry older gentleman whose neighbors are robbing his vegetable garden.”
Lunging into tackles, spraying passes with good intent but miserable execution, and trying so many shots from outside that his own team refused to pass him the ball, Scholes certainly caught the scout’s eye.
A few weeks later, the manager himself showed up with the scout. Scholes went doubly hard that day. Seemed like he couldn’t have hit more misguided passes, attempted more audacious shots, and barreled recklessly into more ankle-crunching challenges than the previous weeks, but he did. And Fergie loved it.
As I sip my room-temperature Foster’s and watch the football match shuffle to a hopelessly mid-table conclusion, I return, as always, to the very first bullet point in my notebook. One word spoken by a Scotsman.
It concerns the day that Fergie came to watch us play. We all played with one eye on the manager at the sidelines, and when we finally decided to knock off, he called us over.
After the usual empty praise, and a quick autograph session, he asked to see, as he put it, “the wee gingey.”
We were stunned.
I had played well enough, using my speed to get down the flanks and put in some teasing balls. And Nelson Towney, I remember specifically, had a brilliant individual dribble that left two defenders in knots and the ball gently touched into the corner of the goal.
But it was Scholesy that they wanted to see.
I’ll never forget the three of them walking down the hill to the manager’s dark brown sedan. Fergie was chatting away at Paul, very intently gesturing at his right leg and talking with his hands. We all watched in burning green envy.
As they stood on opposite sides of the car, with Scholesy waiting for the man with the pink nose to unlock the doors, the others started to drift away. I, with my desperately inquisitive mind, stayed at the fence to watch.
And just before they ducked their bodies into the car, I swear I saw Fergie pantomime using a screwdriver, or something of the sort, point at Paul’s head, and say a word that wouldn’t mean anything to me until years later, when I got one in my car.