Faith in Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes is correct but cannot be enduring
Try this for a quiz question. What do Graeme Souness, Terry McDermott, Mark Lawrenson, John Aldridge and Ray and Alan Kennedy all have in common? Apart from playing for Liverpool at the height of their success and contributing to the record 18 titles that Manchester United are now on the verge of overhauling.
The answer is that all of them were moved on to other clubs at the same age, roughly 31. Even Emlyn Hughes only stuck around at Anfield until he was 32. Liverpool in the 70s and 80s were widely admired for their businesslike knack of extracting the best years from a player then shipping him out while he still had a little shelf life remaining. When coupled with an equally slick facility for finding quality replacements and having them ready to step up exactly when needed, Liverpool at the time appeared to have found the blueprint for continued, seamless success. The faces would change but the style of play and the winning ethos remained the same. That, as Dire Straits were singing at around the same time, is the way you do it.
Or it used to be. Should Manchester United win a 19th title this season they will have taken a markedly different route to achieving the same consistency. At the age of 37 Ryan Giggs has just signed a contract extension to cover next season, and Paul Scholes, one year younger, is thought to be about to do the same. Sir Alex Ferguson certainly wants him to, and with United reportedly willing to pay him £60,000 per week it appears Oldham Athletic's hopes may be dashed once again.
These are not just players who were involved in the historic treble campaign of 12 years ago, they are players who began their United careers in the early 90s. Giggs made his league debut 20 years ago on Wednesday and has been a virtual ever-present since the 1991‑92 season, when Howard Wilkinson's Leeds kept Ferguson waiting for his first title, while Scholes came to the fore in 1994-95, when there were still 22 teams in the Premier League and the top three at the end of the season were Blackburn, United and Nottingham Forest.
Watching the United midfield's laboured attempts to break down Marseille in midweek it could be readily understood why Ferguson still feels he needs the creative input of Scholes and Giggs – even at their present ages they appear to have more to offer than Darron Gibson and Michael Carrick – yet it still came as something of a shock to work out that when Wayne Rooney offered the excuse that "a few big players were missing", he must have been referring to a duo whose careers seemed to be drawing to a close several years ago.
Giggs, in particular, is playing better now than he was in his early 30s. He has not quite travelled full circle to rediscover the exhilarating freedom of his youth, but he has refined his game to focus on what he can still do to good effect and become a more economical and effective player in the process. A section of the Old Trafford crowd used to be on Giggs's back a few years ago, moaning that he took too many wrong options, failed to see the killer pass and frequently misdirected his final ball. Now Giggs has corrected most of those faults United fans want to see as much of him as they can, knowing that this legend is now as large and as valid as anything from the club's illustrious past.
Scholes is regarded in much the same way, though it is hard to argue the midfielder is playing some of the best football of his career at the moment. By his own admission, he isn't, and neither is he scoring as many goals as he used to, largely because he is playing deeper. If he is still seen as United's best midfielder it is because the competition in that department has yet to match his peerless standards. Scholes stands out more due to the relative ordinariness of the players around him. United keep assuming he will fade into the background then realising they still need him.
And this is the team that could topple the Liverpool record. The team that could finally count out Chelsea's wavering defence of the title with victory at Stamford Bridge on Tuesday. Chelsea's loss to Liverpool this month means the game can no longer be seen as the title showdown Carlo Ancelotti had been hoping, but with Arsenal in such close pursuit United can ill afford to drop points anywhere. Their away record is a recognised weak point this season, the leaders have to travel to Liverpool as well as Chelsea in the next eight days, and as long as Arsenal can keep in touch at the top they can look forward to a May Day meeting with United at the Emirates that could go a long way to deciding where the title ends up.
If events do work out that way, attention is more or less bound to focus on the irresistible subplot involving Scholes and Jack Wilshere, two players who are not only similar to each other in style and temperament but have been singled out by their peers as the best of their generation. Only time will establish whether Wilshere really is the new Scholes, but time is certainly on his side. Ferguson must wish he had Scholes aged 19 all over again. True, the United man has all the experience, but football is essentially a young man's game and Ferguson surely cannot keep turning to the same players. That is precisely what he did two years ago, when to general surprise he used Giggs and Scholes in the 2009 Champions League final, only for United to lose quite badly. A Scholes goal had been enough to dismiss Barcelona the previous season, but the Catalans were all over United in Rome.
Not even the most remarkable careers can go on for ever. United, like Chelsea, appear in danger of being caught out by diminishing returns, and when you can spot the signs it is usually too late. While Arsenal may not catch up this season, at least they know how to replenish.