Football is more of a mental disorder than a sport. Its beauty is often too infrequent and the only real certainty it provides is that madness will inevitably prevail. Manchester United supporters will know this truism as well as most; immersed in success, the side's propensity for the surreal, particularly when facing adversity, has driven most of its aficionados to the edge of insanity.
The game itself coaxes a rarefied form of disturbance out of those whose entire lives are dictated by its perplexing nature. But this particular campaign has set a new bar for oddity, as evidenced by a litany of occurrences over the course of the season. A few years ago, very few would have envisioned a title joust being confined to the environs of the North West.
Manchester City were largely decimated, while their red neighbours across town were as bent on success as they had ever been. Yet here we are, days from a show-down that will be enjoyed by neutrals and dreaded by those whose hearts will be obliterated by its drama. If the absurdity of this title, with all its associations, coming down to the wire isn't enough to certify the game as abnormal, one of the players taking part will: Mr. Paul Scholes
Such was his near-seamless transition back into playing mode, one could be forgiven for thinking Scholes hadn't gone through a stint at retirement. A fulcrum of United's consistency post-Christmas, any doubts that Scholes couldn't do himself, and United, justice anymore were soon allayed by the ease with which the wizard settled back onto his midfield throne. His return, a surprise despite the whispers, came at a time when United craved a return to midfield order and his subsequent form since has aided United's resilient charge towards a 20th league title.
Doubt still remains over precisely why Scholes, who had six months earlier proclaimed his legs had gone, decided to return. Official word from Ferguson stated Scholes had approached him. The coaching role at reserve level had failed to snare his enthusiasm and he was missing it. A new hunger had consumed him and regret - a trait most wouldn't attach to the notoriously reserved Scholes - had forced him to foot his way into Ferguson's office with a request that would always be accepted.
But Ferguson's word is always to be met with a raised eyebrow. An almost pathological liar, his unceasingly incomprehensible managerial style ensures much of what he states is met with instant suspicion. Had his returning star really come a-begging, or - more plausibly - had player and needful club met half way? Given United's ever-gaping midfield abyss, coupled with their pre-New Year form, cynics would unquestionably suggest it was indeed United who initiated Scholes' odd resurrection.
Not that the majority of the club's supporters dwelled on it too long. In the immediate aftermath of the announcement, many bypassed shock and accepted the joy nostalgia brings. Whether enthusiasm for Paul's return stemmed purely from the beauty his game produces, or from a lingering desperation to repair what's broken, or indeed both, was open to discussion. As one who grew up religiously adoring his movements, I had my own feelings when news broke of his coming out of retirement: immediate despondency, for a number of reasons.
Last August, I made a now rare visit to Old Trafford to bid farewell to a master of the game in its purist form. Safe in the knowledge that it would be him, and not United's siphoning owners, who would pocket my money, I felt obliged to go and say two goodbyes: firstly, to Scholes, who had enlivened my youth when football was strictly football and devoid of the politics that drive one's adulthood support of the game frequently into despair.
Secondly, I would part ways - once more - with Old Trafford, not knowing when I would ever be able to return. Having studied the unforgiveable destruction wrought against the club by its parasitic owners, I, like a small portion of United's enormous support, felt unable to justify handing over money that would not go towards the team, but to a Floridian family. My visits were now confined to testimonials - drab fares immersed in poor football, orchestrated 'atmospheres' and silly goodbyes.
The closing moments of Paul Scholes testimonial were illimitably harder to bear than any loss I'd attended, or cup exit, or defeat at the hands of the enemy. It further cemented the very reasons why I've always loved the game: not for trophies, but for the moments that lead to trophies. Spread passes, thunderous volleys, the manipulation of space that Zidane mastered and Scholes, whilst not quite as good, nevertheless has shared throughout the entirety of his wondrous career. Scholes aptly rounded off his night with a customary thunderbolt before rounding the pitch with his children. That was it: goals, trophies, an exemplary pass completion rate - all ended with a shy wave and a final walk down the tunnel.
I stayed behind that night, not wanting to let go and, whilst not teary-eyed, sombre at least in the knowledge that it could be years before I'd ever go back. Months on, his announcement that his career wasn't in fact over, and was about to be rekindled, brought laughs from those who knew I'd spent a considerable sum of money to be there on the day. Jokes about refunded tickets ensued, a preposterous idea given I'd happily have emptied my bank account just to see the wizard kick an orange into an empty field. But I was, admittedly, sad: because he hadn't been allowed to retire quietly and the underlying, deeply unsettling, issues his return only further highlighted. In short, I lamented his return.
Facing into Monday's showdown, supporters are already presiding over personnel and formations and who and which would be best to gun down a recently rejuvenated City side. Given United are in the precarious situation where a draw would be decent, many are suggesting the most sensible approach would be to stop them rather than start at them. Talks of a midfield 5, lined out in order to combat City's roaming Silva and Toure, have been put forward by those who believe to be conservative, given our limitations, is the only way to nullify City's wealth of attacking options.
The inclusion of Scholes and Carrick is a certainty, primarily because they are realistically United's only two reliable options. Picking a third to nestle in alongside them is difficult and only serves to highlight exactly what is wrong, and has been wrong for a number of years, with this current United squad. The list of candidates for a potential third berth reads as follows: Ryan Giggs, Phil Jones and Tom Cleverely - and, at a push, a deep-set Wayne Rooney. Or, in other words: a creaking winger, a shambling defender, a brand-conscious prospect and a striker.
Symptomatic of a club laden with debt, United's midfield options have been slack for a lamentably prolonged period and have been predominantly ignored for the most part. Whether through managerial negligence, or a lack of funds, or both, United's midfield options are in no way adequate for the standard at which they should be operating. The saddening aspect of Scholes' return is that no matter how joyous it is to see him still dominate, no matter how devastatingly heavenly those long arching balls will always look, recalling him and relying so heavily on him out of necessity is a depressant. Reinstating old heroes is fine if surrounded by young contenders, but Scholes' influence over the side since his return has only served to highlight that an attempt to replace him when he called time on his career should have occurred.
That it didn't opens up all sorts of disturbing issues. His pivotal role and restoration of order to what had been a porous side threw further light on a damning failure to do what was right at the time: get someone in who would enliven and improve a despairingly light, quality-lacking, midfield. If Scholes became the harbinger of consistent results to United, he also became the deliverer of the harsh truth: that someone was needed badly. Without him, City could well have been champions by now.
All told, the return of Paul Scholes to Manchester United's playing squad brought with it a host of juxtaposing emotions. Ultimately, if United snare what has become an increasingly difficult league title to grasp, the romanticism surrounding his role in it will be another highlight in a career laden with brilliance. If City win on Monday and race on towards glory, they will not have done so without a battle fought against a ginger-led battalion with fight embedded in their DNA. Title or no league title, he has earned himself a contract for being one of the season's key performers - both a telling tale of his brilliance and a damning indictment of United's current midfield options.
The pleasure borne out of seeing Scholes recreate the on-field poetry of old is marred by a sadness by the circumstances that surround it and the fact it will come to an end again soon. No purist could deny that the sight of Paul Scholes, exuding that terrifying air of total casualness, ignites a hope that the game has not been lost to the huff and puffers of the football world.
As a child, my football hero was not, as it should have been - hailing from Cork, Roy Keane. Keane was a sociopathic leader of men, a winner who could play, too. But Paul Scholes was a leader of the ball, a player who manipulated it so well you often had the impression that it was attached to a length of rope grasped tightly in his hand. Keane's presence in the team showed me value of never giving in.
Scholes, however, supplied the fix that kept bringing me back to my love for the true beauty of the game: an artistry only a select few can ever produce. Since January I've begun to hate my immediate reaction to his return - purely because he has reproduced many of the moments that made saying goodbye so hard first time around. Like any advocate of beauty, I've thoroughly enjoyed, even loved, his return to football. Not solely for the benefit he has offered to Manchester United's title challenge, but most importantly for the supply of sheer joy his moments on the field always produce. No matter what happens on Monday, be it celebration or capitulation, a desultory season has been illuminated by a ginger asthmatic. I just can't help but lament the host of reasons that made his return a necessity.