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A glass of wine, £50 boots and Roy Keane's approval

Mar 21, 2023

Paul Scholes and legendary Man United boss Sir Alex Ferguson kept the return quiet ahead of a Manchester derby in the 2012 FA Cup

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Paul Scholes didn't exactly sneak into the Lowry hotel but there was still an element of espionage as he pulled out a chair.

The Manchester United great was part of the club's coaching staff and seeing him around the squad on match days was nothing out of the ordinary. He perched at the staff table, nursed a glass of wine and pondered what was to come.

He was about to emerge out of retirement and make his second United debut. Only a few people knew and none of his teammates were aware.

Scholes hadn't kicked a competitive ball in eight months but felt the fire burning while coaching United's Under-23s. He wanted another taste. He’d picked his moment. United were about to take on rivals Manchester City in the FA Cup. The Blues were freshly cash rich and had humbled United 6-1 at Old Trafford only a few months earlier. That day all eyes were on Mario Balotelli. This time they’d be on Scholes.

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As a player he wasn't comfortable with the limelight, preferring to let his feet do the talking. He was about to find out if they still could.

"I think I trained once with the first team before I came back in January 2012," said Scholes, when reflecting on his return in an interview with BT Sport. "I had to sort some boots out so I went down to the local shop and bought a pair of cheap boots for £50 because I hadn't got a sponsor. We couldn't let Nike know because it’d be obvious I was coming back."

Scholes spoke with Gary and Phil Neville, then approached long-term assistant manager Mike Phelan. Eventually, he knocked on the manager's door.

Scholes said: "I went to see Mick and he said it was a great idea so the day after, nervous, I knocked on his [Sir Alex Ferguson's] door and said I was thinking of coming back and he said 'great' straight away, 'let me ring David Gill and we’ll get your contract sorted out.'"

Contract signed, cheap boots purchased. Scholes was all set. He travelled to the hotel the night before and his return was still under wraps. The squad didn't find out until Ferguson named the team in the Etihad dressing room, with Scholes among the subs.

"He didn't tell the players because I think he just wanted to keep it quiet," recalls Scholes. "Playing City away and he said just come to the hotel, The Lowry, on the Saturday night before the game on the Sunday and just sit on the staff table, maybe have half a glass of wine and just don't say a word.

"Then I get to the ground the next day and I know what's going on so I’m a bit nervous about what the lads are going to think and then we get in the dressing room and my shirt is up and I’ve been named as substitute."

Scholes needn't have worried. The squad were receptive, even grateful to be having a player of his ability returning. "We didn't even know until we were in the dressing-room," said Wayne Rooney of the comeback.

Now word was out and the world knew. A game that didn't need another narrative arc had one. But the reaction was generally positive, even former United midfielder Roy Keane could see the logic.

"I'm very surprised, I have to say. I can understand that it's probably worth a gamble," he said, while on punditry duty for ITV Sport. "But Scholesy retired seven or eight months ago because he thought his legs were gone and wasn't contributing in big games, so in that respect I'm surprised. But it's probably worth the gamble to lift the squad."

"It's been in the offing for a few weeks," added his manager. "He has been playing really well. He came to see me and said he was missing it too much. There were no negatives as far as I'm concerned. The fans will be happy and I am happy."

That was certainly the case at the break as the Manchester rivals played out the first half of the third round tie. United were three up and City were down to 10 men. Rooney had netted twice, either side of a Danny Welbeck effort, and Blues captain Vincent Kompany had been sent off.

Aleksandar Kolarov pulled one back early in the second half before Scholes was introduced on the hour. He didn't get the start he wanted, a poor pass allowing Sergio Aguero to reduce the deficit to one with a quarter of the game still to play.

"I gave a goal away and I thought 'what am I doing here,'" added Scholes. "I remember David Platt was a coach under (Roberto) Mancini and I'm warming up and I was about to go on for the last half an hour and Platt said to me 'what the hell are you doing?'

"At that time I thought 'what am I doing here?' but then I gave a bad pass for a throw in and Aguero nipped in to score and you start to panic and I’m thinking 'what have I just done?'"

United saw out the contest, just, and Scholes went to make a further 20 appearances that season, earning a new one-year deal. Now, 11 years on from the last time the Manchester rivals met in the FA Cup, they meet in an historic Wembley final. This time Scholes can sit back and watch it all unfold, perhaps with a glass of wine in hand.


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