After having been unceremoniously exiled to the left wing to accommodate two lesser players, and then substituted after 57 minutes to be replaced by Phil Neville, Lisbon’s Estadio da Luz witnessed the dying embers of Paul Scholes’s time in an England shirt. Within weeks he had retired.
In the long history of short-sighted decisions made by the Football Association and the England national side, surely none – not even the awarding of a cap to Michael Ricketts – can compete with the failure to construct an international side around the singularly brilliant talent of Scholes, a man once described by the great Zinedine Zidane as "undoubtedly the best midfielder of his generation."
While Andrea Pirlo orchestrated Italy’s victory at the 2006 World Cup and Xavi has overseen Spain’s reign of terror in the international arena over the past four years, Scholes, one of only a few players who could sit comfortably alongside the two midfielders as a legitimate peer, has been absent from the international stage.
The man who should have been bossing the England midfield was effectively subjected to constructive dismissal when being told by Sven-Goran Eriksson he would have to take up residence at left midfield in order to make space for the partnership of Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard.
Just let that sink in for a moment: Scholes, the finest central midfield talent seen in the Premier League, was told to hug the touchline to indulge the most dysfunctional English double act since the Chuckle Brothers. And with Frank and Stevie G, it has been less a case of ‘to me, to you’, as ‘to me, to the edge of the box and into row z’.
Despite an alarming drop in his potency in front of goal between 2001 and 2004, England, and Eriksson, treated Scholes poorly where other countries would have treasured the talent at their disposal, and the national team has suffered for it ever since. It is hard to disagree when Xavi says of Scholes that “if he’d been Spanish he might have been rated more highly.”
Now, following the news that Jack Wilshere will certainly miss the tournament due to injury, England are once again preparing for the awful realisation that Barry and Paul Chuckle will be in place once again. This is nothing against either Lampard or Gerrard as a player, but it has been proved beyond any sliver of doubt that as a partnership they are vastly ineffective.
Lampard’s relative decline over the past 12 months – spotted by both Fabio Capello and Andre Villas-Boas, both of whom have vacated their positions in a neat twist of fate for the 33-year-old as he seeks to continue raging against the dying of the light – had given England some hope of finally breaking free of the Lampard-Gerrard yoke that has rendered their football distinctly agricultural in the centre of the field.
Scott Parker, installed as captain by Stuart Pearce, will anchor the midfield, but with Michael Carrick continuing to be overlooked and Gareth Barry suffering from some unimpressive form since the World Cup, there is every chance the yoke will be in place once again.
Every chance, that is, unless Scholes can be lured back to break the dastardly duopoly that once forced his own exile from the international scene.
Certainly, Scholes's form since reversing his retirement for Manchester United has been nothing short of exceptional. United have won all 10 of the games in which he has started and the little midfielders wonderful repertoire of passing has been in glorious effect, as it was before he initially stepped away from the game last summer. Sir Alex Ferguson once described Xavi and Iniesta’s mesmeric passing of being reminiscent of a carousel, and while Scholes might have something of the bumper car about him when in the tackle, his use of the ball remains every bit as classy and hypnotising as that of the Barcelona pair.
Ferguson says there is “no chance” of Scholes returning to England in time for Euro 2012, but other reports have suggested otherwise, and that he could be open to persuasion. Of course, everything will depend on who is appointed manager ahead of the finals, but the man widely expected to assume the crown, Harry Redknapp, has already made his position clear.
“Age doesn’t matter,” he said following Fabio Capello’s resignation. “Look at Paul Scholes; let’s be honest, you would love to have Scholes in the Euros this year. He’d be in your team, he’s that good. Whoever’s there would love to take him I’m sure. You’d love him to play. He plays like the Spaniards, like Xavi, or Iniesta - he doesn’t give the ball away.”
Though Harry’s coronation has not been confirmed, and the FA appears content to drag its heels for now, you suspect whichever manager is tasked with pulling together a squad of 23 would easily find room for Scholes given his performances for Manchester United over the past few months.
The final say will of course go to the notoriously shy midfielder himself, whose original decision to step away from international football afforded him the chance to spend more time with his family and prolong his club career to great effect.
If England did approach him regarding a return, it would not be the first time. Scholes was of course courted in a rather haphazard, last-minute way by Capello prior to the 2010 World Cup, a process that impacted severely on the player’s decision to turn down his country’s overtures.
“It’s a big decision and I wasn’t really given enough time to think about it, so I decided not to take up the offer,” Scholes said in June 2010.
“If they’d asked me earlier I probably would have accepted. There are players in the squad who have spent nearly two years flying all around the world helping England qualify for the World Cup, whereas I haven’t been involved for a long time.
“It wasn’t a case of wanting to go on holiday, it was the fact that I got the call so close to the tournament, and also I didn’t want to take the place of someone who helped get England to South Africa. The idea just didn’t sit comfortably with me.”
Pitching any renewed attempt to bring Scholes back into the fold as a move to mitigate for Wilshere’s absence could assuage the second of those two concerns, but the first could prove problematic once again.
The FA’s reluctance to approach the managerial situation with any sort of urgency could leave the chosen individual with no time to massage Scholes round to his way of thinking, should he indeed want to mould his midfield around the 37-year-old.
With his future as a professional remaining unclear beyond the summer, Euro 2012 represents the last chance for Scholes to enjoy a final fling with international football. How typical of England it would be to let that chance pass.