Old Trafford, August 2003. Paul Scholes and his wife, Claire, are making a rare public appearance at a fundraising dinner for the National Asthma Campaign in a suite at the stadium. The Manchester United midfielder is nervous. 'sugar!' he says. 'I don't have to get up and say a few words, do I? And with a microphone? What do I do?'
Scholes is renowned for being a master on the field who shows no reticence in bossing his team-mates around but who is Trappist-like away from the game.
'My wife has asthma, as does Paul, so I know all about it,' says Eric Harrison, the lauded coach of the famous United youth team that included Scholes, the Neville brothers, Nicky Butt and David Beckham. 'It's well down the pecking order when it comes to raising money. The campaign people contacted me, but it was a non-starter without Paul.
'I was a bit concerned about asking him because he's so shy. But Paul agreed without hesitation. I told him to bring his wife, Claire, and although he was happy to help, you could see he was worried. When they arrived at around six that evening Paul said, "What do I have to do?" I told him he was on the top table for the dinner. That got him going. "I'm not!" he said. I had to say to him, "Paul, you are, all you have to do is take a few questions, and answer them". He did it, and did it well. They raised Â£22,000 on the night and that was all down to Paul and his wife. And he never even had a go at me for getting him there.'
On Wednesday the lad from Salford has a chance to take centre stage on the pitch - as he did by scoring the stunning goal that defeated Barcelona in the Champions League semi-finals - by winning the only club trophy missing from a stellar career. Scholes - a 'football genius' to Harrison, a sad loss to England head coach Fabio Capello because of his self-imposed international retirement, and the man rated number one in English football by Patrick Vieira, Rio Ferdinand and many more - is a certain starter for United against Chelsea in Moscow.
He famously missed United's 1999 triumph against Bayern Munich through suspension. Scholes had come on as a 68th-minute substitute in the second leg of the semi-final against Juventus as Sir Alex Ferguson sought to protect him from the booking that would lead to him being suspended from the final. But Scholes's tackling failed him again and he was shown the dreaded yellow card.
This time, though, Scholes has already been promised a starting place by Ferguson. United's manager may be less gruff than the public persona allows, but the Scot is hardly sentimental. Ryan Giggs's 10 Premier League titles are not apparently enough to take him off the bench. Yet the Welshman, along with all his team-mates, is happy that Scholes is guaranteed a start.
When Beckham was at Real Madrid, he confirmed that Scholes was the most admired opponent in a dressing room boasting Zinedine Zidane, LuÃs Figo and Roberto Carlos. And, asked to name the best in a United squad that includes Cristiano Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney, this is Ferdinand's verdict: 'For me, it's Paul Scholes. He'll do ridiculous things in training like say, "You see that tree over there?" - it'll be 40 yards away - "I'm going to hit it". And he'll do it. Everyone at the club considers him the best.'
He is also the most reticent. Scholes, who earns Â£75,000 a week, has never, unless prompted by club or country, granted a one-on-one interview. The one endorsement he has allowed himself - a boot deal with Nike - is unusual in that it carries few public obligations. 'He's been with us for years,' a Nike executive tells Observer Sport. 'For us, association is enough. If you go around the world, he is one of the only players not asked to do public appointments. He's a shy guy, but that's fine.'
Paul Aaron Scholes was born on 16 November 1974 in Salford. He has a younger sister, Joanne, and happily married parents. His father, Stewart, was, according to Mike Coffey, the former United scout who taught Scholes at Cardinal Langley High School and who persuaded him to join the club, 'a superb footballer who played locally in Middleton into his forties'.
The family lived on the large Langley estate and Scholes grew up watching football on the terraces at Oldham's Boundary Park. 'His hero was Frankie Bunn, the Oldham Athletic striker,' Coffey says. 'He is an Oldham nut and it wouldn't surprise me if at 36, or whenever he's finished at United, Paul plays for them.'
Coffey, who scouted for United between 1985 and 1999, says Scholes was not academic. 'Paul is football crazy. I've followed him since I took his first-year team all the way through. And while Paul is not very socially confident, give him a group of lads, a football and he's certainly not quiet.'
After joining Oldham as an 11-year-old, Scholes played in a Boundary Park Juniors team that included the Neville brothers and Butt. When Coffey recommended him to Brian Kidd, who helped Harrison at United, he had to pull Scholes into his office and persuade him to join. 'He was very reluctant and took a couple of days to be convinced.'
Harrison says that the first time he saw Scholes - then nearly 15 - at the Cliff, United's former training ground, he was impressed. 'Brian Kidd said to me, "He's only tiny, he's got ginger hair - you'll probably have a bit of a giggle. But he can't half play". He was tiny. David Beckham was as small then, too, but Scholes is still the same size. Not that it matters, he has no real pace, no strength, but he is clever and has quick feet. Like all creative players who can pass he scores spectacular goals, but he also scores them from everywhere - headers, tap-ins and long shots. If David Beckham had not taken all the free-kicks, imagine how many more Paul would have got.'
Harrison adds: 'That youth side played on a Saturday morning. We called it the Dream Team. It attracted a fair crowd and their favourite was Scholes. And remember, United fans have been brought up on players like Duncan Edwards - they're not stupid. The standard was as good as first-team training. And the manager saw Paul and knew about him.'
Where did Harrison play him? 'He scored so many goals, the further up the better. Like Ryan Giggs, we told Paul to go out and perform, while also thinking of the team.'
Scholes was coming into a team who had won the 1992 FA Youth Cup and scored against Leeds in the final in 1993, when the Reds finished as runners-up. United's big stars, including Bryan Robson, Steve Bruce and Eric Cantona, would watch. 'I said to Eric one day, "What's the difference between French youngsters and English youngsters?"' Harrison recalls. 'He said, "Maybe our youngsters receive the ball a little better than your boys". Well, Paul is one of the best receivers still today.'
Scholes, who in 2006 had a career-threatening eye injury - 'I spoke to him then and it did worry him,' Harrison says - also suffered from Osgood-Schlatter disease, a knee problem that affects younger players. 'He had to sit out training and was not a happy chappy at all with me.
'He missed a lot of football and it might have held him back a bit at that critical stage. But,' Harrison recalls with a chuckle, 'when he returned he was absolutely lethal.'
Scholes, who enjoys a round of golf and has three children, has won eight League titles, three FA Cups - he scored the second goal in the 1999 final, in United's Treble season - and one League Cup. He was a member of the England Under-18 side that won the 1993 European Championship and, after scoring on his full debut, against Italy in June 1997, memorably dealt with the pressure of replacing the dropped Paul Gascoigne at the 1998 World Cup by scoring a 30-yard cracker against Tunisia in England's opening game.
His international career continued brightly with a hat-trick at Wembley against Poland in March 1999. But that June he became the first and last England player to be shown a red card at the old Wembley, against Sweden.
'He is not as good a tackler as you,' says Chelsea's tough man Michael Essien, with a laugh, of the one accepted flaw in Scholes' game. 'But I really like him. He's a little boy, but the power in that shot... he can really shoot.'
Despite 14 goals in 66 appearances, his England career might be viewed as unfulfilled - it ended following Euro 2004 after he had breached a three-year goal drought. But that is tempered by England's disappointing performance overall since the 1990 World Cup. Retirement came at only 29, seemingly because Sven-GÃ¶ran Eriksson had shunted Scholes out to the left of midfield, although his public reasons - more family time, and a prolonged club career - have also proved credible. Undoubtedly, though, it was a loss to England. Eriksson and his successors, Steve McClaren and Capello, have all wanted him back.
'I think we were all disappointed because we all know what he can do,' says Micah Richards, the England and Manchester City right-back. 'He's always in the right position, always seems to be at the end of the box when the ball drops in. The complete midfielder - when he's fit, he's the best. Some go missing but he's in the right place at the right time. He's my favourite player of all-time, unbelievable. If you give him a chance it's a goal, isn't it?'
Like any player, Scholes has suffered disappointment. Despite being outplayed, Arsenal won the 2005 FA Cup in the final's first ever penalty shootout when Scholes missed the kick that would have levelled the score at 5-5.