Cultural Relatives: Paul Scholes & Ray Allen
Illustration by Dan Evans


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Cultural Relatives: Paul Scholes & Ray Allen

To drown out everything at the crucial moment is perhaps only possible when you drown out everything every day of your life. Paul Scholes and Ray Allen seemed know this.

There was a nice moment in a recent BT Sports trailer, though unfortunately I cannot find it online, because the internet is not a house slave required to bring all things to me when I desire them. Basically, the BT Sport pundits – Rio and Robbie and the boys – are required to bounce around on trampolines, presumably to demonstrate their enthusiasm at BT betting the shareholders' farm on televised football. Only one declines. When the camera is put on him, he simply does that demonstrably withering stretch of his mouth and says, "I'm not doing that."


You can interpret this in two ways. Interpretation number one is that the media wizards decided 'that's Scholesy's thing, being like that,' and had him do it as a shtick. Or, better still, they tried repeatedly to get him to do it, and were met with the same response, at which point they decided sod it and just filmed that instead.

I wish there was an immutable law stating that the noise a footballer makes is inversely proportionate to their degree of talent. It basically works: Robbie Savage is loud, Leo Messi is quiet. And then someone like Maradona or Zlatan comes along to remind you that trying to apply any immutable laws to humans is a fool's errand. Nonetheless, Scholes was almost parodically quiet in his playing days. In The Class of '92 Gary Neville refers to him, when they were United kids rooming together, 'disappearing into his batcave'. It would be nice to imagine he simply sat motionless and unslept until it was time for the next training session, but, given what we've learnt in snippets over the years, the likelihood is that he just got his plate of fishfingers and chips and beans and went to the place where he could watch TV without anyone talking to him.

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And from those beginnings came a player who, in that baggy United shirt with the badge front and centre, playing at night-time, symbolises football in my youth as much as anything else. And who, in his capacity to be wilfully unremarkable – except in the moments when having a dose of unimaginable talent would come in handy, and out comes Batman – is what makes humans such a puzzle. I'd love to know if, when he's back at home with Claire (his childhood girlfriend, standard) and the kids, he actually is that low-key, or whether he's doing a shtick for the public that allows him to be left alone to be whatever he wants. Here's a fact that won't surprise you when you think about the extremity of his tackling: he is number one for Champions League yellow cards. And just because I know you like facts, two others from the top 10: Xabi Alonso (#2), and Luis Figo (#9).


Aggressive, magical, quiet. And according to pretty much all footballers of note, the player they'd like to be.

The Relative

Football is better than basketball, purely because of the rarity of its moments and the impact they have on the outcome. So that when, for example, Scholes smashed that volley from the edge of the box in off the bar against Villa, it wasn't just beautiful but also consequential. If human life is a numbers game, then an alien's eye would immediately be drawn to the sport that imbued its numbers with the most value.

And if life is a numbers game, then boy do the Americans come off like cranks with how seriously they take it. Ray Allen, two-time NBA Championship winner in Boston and Miami, 'on March 12th 2006 became the 97th player in NBA history to score 15,000 points'. I like to imagine some earnest fitness coach informing him of this stat, but fluffing it and saying 'you're the 98th… no wait, or was it… god was it 97th or 98th?' Elsewhere, there are celebrations for reaching 17,000 points, 20,000 points, for most 3-pointers in one Finals half, for two separate games of scoring at least seven 3-pointers in a Finals game, and for most 3-pointers in a season. America is a by-the-numbers parody of winning.

But Ray Allen was also the purest exemplar of long-range shooting technique I've ever seen; if you quantified it – and given their love for the technology of success I'm sure it's been done – a nanosecond breakdown of his shooting-technique would probably show that there's never a muscle strand out of place. Last year's MVP, Steph Curry, whose thing is also the 3-ball, has nothing like that; his shot is a sudden, improvised move. In less time than it takes to blink he's got the ball up and out and always scores, from anywhere. It makes perfect sense that the American method of improvement is to do it faster. Ray's season 3-point record now belongs to Curry.


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Here's Boston Celtics (and Finals MVP the year they won it) small forward Paul Pierce talking about his relationship with Paul Scholes. 'It was a weird relationship. We were all good friends on court, but Scholesy just did his own thing. That's just the way Paul was. Even when we were playing together, we'd be having a team dinner and he wouldn't show up.' He said that about Ray, obviously.

The implication is – and there's a wealth of words about both guys on the subject – that you only get this level of technique with practice, and that they both recognised how much you had to practice to get it. But I wonder if, with both of them, there was ever any element of 'had to' about it; it was simply that if a day didn't have a good four or five hours exercising the ability to put a ball in a specific place, then it wasn't a useful day. This is why I think that if you imagine an elite sportsperson they are so much more likely to be a man than a woman: because most women cannot help thinking there are other ways to make a useful day. Other people to see, perhaps. But men, more obviously the blood relatives of chimpanzees, have that lonely thickheaded obsessive gene, as the Americans would put it, on point.

The Hand of History – Champions League semi vs Barcelona, 2008 / NBA Finals Game 6 vs San Antonio Spurs, 2013

And then it all pays off. Practiced technique becomes eternal magic for everyone watching. If you look closely, you can see that the thought processes for these two moments are almost identical: as the ball comes to each of them, it goes where am I, where's the aim, bang. The years of honing meant there was nothing left to do but put the entirety of your technique through it. If I ripped my foot through the ball like Scholes did, I wouldn't be surprised if it headed out for a throw-in, as opposed to giving Victor Valdes as little chance as a goalkeeper can have from 30 yards.


The 3-pointer Allen scores – to tie the game with five seconds remaining, when to not score would have meant Spurs taking the Championship – can be found in identical versions in other, lesser games. But to drown out everything in such a significant moment – everything beside your ability to do it – is maybe only possible if you drown out everything in your entire life but your ability to do it. I wonder how many people see few relationships/sporting legend as a deal they'd take. Kobe Bryant did, and he puts it more eloquently: 'Friends hang sometimes. Banners hang forever.'

A Little Cultural Context

Paul Scholes played one of the leads, named Jesus, alongside Denzel Washington and Milla Jovovich, in Spike Lee's 1998 prison/redemption drama He Got Game. He was not altogether mocked for his performance, described by Peter Stack of the San Francisco Gate as 'naturally disarming, a non-actor whose nonchalance is in itself a refreshing realism'.

Ray Allen has ginger hair.

Words: @tobysprigings / Illustration: @dan_draws