Player with a special vision
Daniel Taylortalks to Manchester United's Paul Scholes about an eye problem that nearly ended his career and his dramatic return
It will surprise many people who have watched Paul Scholes this season, particularly given the way he strikes the ball so beautifully, that a player who seems to see things a split second before everyone else still suffers from blurred vision.
Scholes may have learned to cope with the eye problem that threatened to end his career but his vision could be impaired for the rest of his life and when he agrees to a rare interview it has to be fitted around his exercises on the state-of-the-art optical equipment Manchester United have installed for him at the training ground.
"It's an eye reactor," Scholes explains about the machine in the corner of the gymnasium. "I don't have to use it but I do anyway. I want to keep on top of it."
There can be few more terrifying thoughts for a professional athlete than the prospect of losing a career to a medical condition, particularly one that affects the eyesight. "Quite worrying" is how Scholes describes it but this is a man, remember, who is famed for his level of understatement.
"All right" is how he reflects on his brilliant performances this season. Others would apply superlatives because Scholes's return to the team, culminating in his seventh Premiership winner's medal and the chance today of his fourth in the FA Cup, marks him down as one of the season's success stories.
"I can remember it clearly," says Scholes, recalling the day he first realised something was wrong. "We were playing at Birmingham and in the last 10 minutes I could see a ball coming towards me. Then it suddenly felt like there were three or four balls coming towards me. I thought I just had a migraine. But I went to see a specialist when it still hadn't gone and they found the problem after that.
"It was worrying, not just as a footballer but also a person with a family. They thought it was quite serious at first and were asking me for my family's medical history, talking about whether there was a history of bleeding or heart disease, stuff like that.
"Then they diagnosed what the problem was and there was a small chance, I believe, it could have ended my career. But I never thought like that. I always thought I would be back and playing. There's still a little bit of blurring but I am totally used to it now."
The specialists diagnosed a blocked vein that was causing bleeding behind his right eye and Scholes was ordered to take a complete rest from physical activity for six months. He still needs regular check-ups but, refreshed, he is playing as well as he ever has done, his fellow professionals voting him third behind his team-mate Cristiano Ronaldo and Didier Drogba for Player of the Year.
"On reflection," he says thoughtfully, "I think the break has been beneficial. I'd been playing a long time without a break and it did refresh me. Plus, I had a lot of time to think about everything. I realised how lucky I was to be a footballer. I'm 33 in November and I know I can't go on much longer, maybe another two or three years, so I just have to enjoy it now."
This has certainly been a season for him to enjoy. "The last couple of seasons we let Chelsea get too far ahead of us and we could never peg them back," he says. "That wasn't fun. It might be good enough for some clubs to finish second or third but it isn't for us, and you don't enjoy those moments. This year we were leading from the front. We were desperate to win the league and we have shown that in every game, right from the start."
Scholes has been such an integral part of United's success it seems baffling that he has turned his back on England. He retired from international football after Euro 2004 at the age of 29, with 66 caps, and until now he has been reluctant to discuss his reasons. "I lost any sense of enjoyment from playing for England," he says. "I still watch the games on television and I do feel for the players. I don't think there is any player who doesn't put in the effort. They are all trying the best they can but, for some reason, it just doesn't seem to click. I'm sure if Steve McClaren knew what the reasons were he would try to put it right."
Had he never been tempted to go back? "I spoke to Steve at the beginning of the season. I did think about it, but I decided against it in the end. I had got my form back playing for United and I didn't want to go to England again and jeopardise it."
England's loss is United's gain. Scholes, who reveals he has been placed under a "no-tackling rule" by Ferguson because of his habit of picking up yellow and red cards, no longer makes as many bursts into the opposition penalty area as in his younger days. But his new role, playing alongside Michael Carrick as two holding midfielders, suits him and he will be a key player at Wembley today.
Scholes also has an extra incentive because it was his penalty shoot-out failure that gave Arsenal the trophy two years ago. "I was the only one who missed," he says ruefully. "That's the way it goes sometimes but I still think about it." Typically, should it come down to penalties again this afternoon Scholes will be among the first to raise his hand. "If the manager wants me to take a penalty, I will take one," he says.
"I'm just not sure the manager will be coming up to me first."