Date: 12th February 2009 at 2:04pm
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The next in the series of the unsung heroes is a man for whom the very term is something of a paradigm for his whole career. (In fact, if you look at his wikipedia entry, the term appears in the opening paragraph). This man holds the club record for Cup Final appearances whilst at the club, having appeared in the 1993, 1998, 2001, 2002 and 2003 F.A. Cup Finals, the 1993 League Cup Final, the 1994 Cup Winners Cup Final (as an unused substitute), the 1995 Cup Winners Cup Final and the 2000 UEFA Cup Final. He was awarded the man of the match in the F.A. Cup Finals of 1998 and 2002 as well as the 2000 UEFA Cup Final and captained the side in the 5-1 win over Inter Milan in the San Siro and won league Championship medals in 1998, 2002 and 2004. In fact, looking back at this opening peroration, I would chance some of you still think I am talking about Martin Keown. Take away the statistics I have provided for the early 1990s and you could be forgiven for thinking I am talking about Patrick Vieira. The player I am talking about did not quite enjoy that stature on the terraces at Highbury, in fact, I seem to remember in my days sitting in the Family Enclosure, that he was volubly derided by many. Ironically enough, those same outspoken critics are usually the ones I hear in the Tavern on a Saturday afternoon bemoaning, “I wish we had someone like Ray Parlour.”

Raymond Parlour was born on 7th March, 1973 in Romford, Essex. He joined Arsenal as a trainee and made his first team debut in January 1992 in a televised game at Anfield. He gave away a penalty in a 2-0 defeat. It was an inauspicious start of what would be an incredibly decorated Arsenal career. Parlour actually made his name in the youth teams as a cultured, passing midfielder. But as he became a member of the first team, George Graham remodelled him into a tenacious and energetic central midfield player, as his fitness was always amongst the highest in the squad. This despite the obvious need for a replacement for the ageing creativity of Paul Davis. But Graham saw a fledgling Ian Selley as the long term successor for that role. A couple of horrific leg breaks for Selley would enervate that plan. In the early years of his career, Parlour was more noted for infamy, despite bagging himself a League Cup winners medal and an F.A. Cup winners medal in 1993 in two epic finals against Sheffield Wednesday. Parlour had a reputation for being “one of the lads” often disappearing on drinking benders with the likes of Perry Groves, Paul Merson and Tony Adams. (When Merson and Adams succumbed to alcoholism, Parlour used to test their drinks to ensure they had not been spiked). In a 1993 pre season tour, Parlour came perilously close to being sacked by Graham after a drunken altercation with a taxi driver in Hong Kong.

His reputation as “one of the lads” was perhaps more admirably entrenched in his legendary sense of humour. His England career memorably ended in 1998, a calf injury was troubling Parlour and then England boss Glenn Hoddle sent Parlour to faith healer Eileen Drury. Drury placed her hands on Parlour`s shoulders and asked what he wanted. “Short back and sides please love,” he quipped. Hoddle failed to see the funny side and Parlour was consequently not selected for the 1998 World Cup squad. Ray was the premium joker in the pack at Arsenal, contemporary team mates talk with great relish how it was Parlour who broke the ice after Arsene Wenger`s first training session at the club when he performed a legendary Inspector Clousseau impression in mockery of the new boss. Another of his more public pranks occurred in the last match of the 2003-04 season. Martin Keown needed one more appearance to secure a league winners medal and Arsenal had one substitution remaining with four minutes left to play. Parlour and Keown were the only reserves left. With Keown warmed up and primed to tick the numerical box, Parlour jokingly began to warm up too, upon running past a bemused looking Keown, Parlour told him, “Boss told me to warm up, I`m coming on.” It was left to Keown to approach Wenger and gently remind him of the small matter of his much needed tenth appearance. The look of relief on his face when he discovered it was a prank was captured for all to see. Parlour now makes some of his living as an after dinner speaker, where his sense of humour is allowed to run riot. I was fortunate enough to be at the AISA end of season gala dinner last summer where he gave a riveting speech (whilst swaying side to side and slurring horribly I might add). He told us that on the plane home from the 2002 Cup Final (a game in which Parlour scored a memorable goal), he was just about to imbibe some champagne with family before being reprimanded by his manager who was concerned that Arsenal had the small matter of a game at Old Trafford that Wednesday. Parlour went on to enjoy a few light ales with friends in Romford that evening against his manager`s advice and without his knowledge. Upon being awarded the man of the match champagne after the title clinching match at Old Trafford, Wenger remarked, “see, that`s all because you didn`t drink any on Saturday.” I think it was Gilles Grimandi who once remarked, “Ray Parlour is the funniest guy I`ve ever met. I only wish I could understand more of what he said.” Parlour also alleges that when John Jensen first joined Arsenal, Parlour surreptitiously taught him a few offensive phrases and instructed to recite them to George Graham under the pretence that he was wishing his manager a good afternoon.

Parlour continued to be a bit part player under Graham, usually filling in as an unspectacular central midfielder. He was an unused substitute in the 1994 Cup Winner Cup final victory in Copenhagen, even with John Jensen suspended; Ian Selley was preferred in midfield. He did play in the incongruous 1995 Final defeat to Real Zaragoza. Bruce Rioch arrived that summer and saw value in Parlour but famously spoke of domesticating him in an attempt to curb his wild ways. Rioch felt players that were married were more likely to be consummate professionals. Parlour had his first daughter that year and eventually took Rioch`s advice and married his partner Karen in 1998. In retrospect, it would be some of the worst advice he would ever follow. In 2004, his wife Karen divorced him and she was awarded £2.2m of his earnings to be paid over five years as well as two houses. It was a landmark divorce case. Parlour appeared to be floundering at Arsenal, an unspectacular journeyman stuck in a team rammed to the rafters with unspectacular journeymen. But the appointment of Arsene Wenger would give his career something of a renaissance.

In his first full season at the club, Wenger changed the shape of the midfield; he sold Paul Merson and bought in Marc Overmars and Emmanuel Petit to compliment the blossoming Patrick Vieira. On the face of it, Parlour`s time at Arsenal looked to have been curtailed. But Wenger saw a place for Parlour in what has probably been the most perfectly balanced midfield in Wenger`s tenure. Parlour played principally as a right winger alongside the aforementioned trio, but Overmars would effectively play as a second striker with fellow wing heeled young buck Nicolas Anelka both gorging themselves on the service of the imperious Bergkamp. This meant Parlour tucked in as an auxiliary third central midfield. Wenger recognised that Parlour`s boundless energy would enable him to cover the flanks and the central areas and allow the cultured Petit and the ever combustible Overmars to cause the damage in the final third. Parlour flourished in that season, amazingly, despite the peerless form of Bergkamp, Parlour won the Fans Player of the Year Award for that season. He put in a man of the match performance in the 1998 Cup Final against Newcastle, absolutely running the show and providing a delightful assist for Nicolas Anelka to score the clincher. Parlour won man of the match awards in the 2002 Final, the 2000 UEFA Cup Final and in the 2001-02 season, walked away from Anfield and Old Trafford with the man of the match champagne. Parlour was a man you could always rely on for the big occasion. Despite his combative style, Parlour was rarely sent off in his Arsenal career.

His form continued into the next season, in the Spring of 1999 Parlour put in three consecutive man of the match performances, culminating in a beautiful goal against Coventry at Highbury in a 2-0 victory that deservedly saw him called up for his country for the first time, making his debut in a 3-1 Euro 2000 Qualifier victory over Poland at Wembley. He went on to be capped ten times by England. The signing of Freddie Ljungberg meant Parlour`s appearances on the right of midfield became infrequent. But he had matured sufficiently as a player for Wenger to utilise him as a regular partner/ replacement for Patrick Vieira in the centre of midfield. Playing beside Vieira, Parlour was often overshadowed but his unswerving commitment made him into a firm favourite amongst Arsenal fans where before he was roundly chastised. Parlour was also the last of a dying era, with the legendary back four and David Seaman on the wane, Parlour represented the last bastion of a bygone age. Parlour briefly earned cameos in the limelight with a stunning hat trick against Werder Bremen in the 2000 UEFA Cup Quarter Final away leg and in the following season, with another hat trick at home to Newcastle the following season. (A “perfect hat trick” no less, one left foot, one right foot and one header). However, with Arsenal failing to bag trophies between 1998-2002, much of Parlour`s work was forgotten with fans lamenting the lack of a natural replacement for Manu Petit. For instance, his man of the match award in the 2000 UEFA Cup Final in Copenhagen will likely be forgotten by most, but more illustrious players such as Suker, Kanu, Henry, Petit and Overmars all completely froze on the occasion. Parlour was the one taking the baton and running with it.

Arsene`s faith was unshaken in Parlour, who, despite the signings of Edu and van Bronckhorst and the older head of Grimandi, continued to select Parlour in central midfield alongside Vieira. The dividends were rich as Arsenal won the Double again. Amongst the literati of colleagues such as Ljungberg, Pires, Bergkamp, Henry and Vieira; Parlour`s contribution was again undervalued. But when Vieira was suspended for a crucial trip to Anfield, it was Parlour who was entrusted with the reigns in midfield. His deputy van Bronckhorst was sent off after 30 minutes. Parlour still found the time to give a young Steven Gerrard and the experienced Dietmar Hamann the run around. He repeated the trick in the title clinching match at Old Trafford, teaming up with Edu and Vieira to negate the deliberately violent tactics of Scholes and Keane. Recognition was not far off. The 2002 F.A. Cup Final will perhaps go down as the Romford Pele`s finest hour. After an hour or so effusively running the midfield, Parlour opened the scoring with a curling 30 yard strike into Carlo Cudicini`s top corner. His strike was famously pre emoted by Soccer AM berk Tim Lovejoy, who was guesting for a celebrity fanzone spot in the Sky Sports commentary box. As Parlour received the pass from Wiltord, Lovejoy muttered, “oh it`s alright, it`s only Ray Parlour.” Two seconds later the ball was in the Chelsea net. It was a moment that encapsulated his career, chronically undervalued, ridiculed even, but persistently delivering on the big stage. Parlour finished the season with yet another League Championship winners medal and an F.A. Cup Winners medal.

He would again be afforded the utmost responsibility in the following season. With Adams having now retired, Parlour captained the side in the absence of new skipper Patrick Vieira and deputy David Seaman. Vieira was injured for the 2003 F.A. Cup Final and Parlour once again kept things ticking over with an excellent performance in midfield, bagging himself yet another F.A. Cup winners medal and breaking a club record for F.A. Cup Final appearances. Records such as these are not achieved by ordinary players. Parlour became more of a bit part player in the next season, with Gilberto and Edu now established and Parlour hitting his thirties, but he still captained a Vieira-less Arsenal side in the 5-1 win over Inter in the San Siro. In fact, few people remember that Vieira sat a total of three months of our unbeaten season out with injury, such was the job Parlour performed- as captain- in his absence, there is little recourse to recall. Parlour collected yet another League Championship winners medal in 2003-04 and confirmed his status as a legend as part of the Invincibles squad. He left that summer for Middlesbrough having played 464 games and scoring 32 goals. Parlour turned down the offer of a testimonial on the grounds that his estranged wife Karen would be entitled to half of the proceeds. In August 2008, he was voted as the 19th greatest Arsenal player of all time by the club`s official website. Not so unsung now he has gone it would appear. Parlour went onto play 60 games for Boro and was an unused substitute in the 2006 UEFA Cup Final. Given his relish for such occasions and the fact that Boro lost that Final 4-0, one would chance that he should have played. He was released by Boro in January 2007 and enjoyed a short spell at Hull City until he retired in the summer of 2007 at the age of 34. Age and injury had robbed him of his all action style and Parlour decided not to surrender his dignity. He now works as a pundit for Arsenal TV and as an after dinner speaker.

With his long, curly locks and unglamorous style, Parlour was under revered in his day. However, he was no simple workhorse, I feel his technique is often unfairly dismissed; he was economical with the ball and had the self awareness to leave the flicks and tricks to the likes of Bergkamp and Henry. He was an intelligent footballer who could operate centrally or out wide (I remember him appearing at full back a couple of times too) and could always be trusted to perform wherever and whenever called upon. His mentality and intelligence were what warmed him to Arsene Wenger, a man renowned for his appreciation of the aesthetics of football. Obviously his engine and bravery marked him out in the minds of most, but his positional sense was excellent too. That intelligence was offset by a winners mentality he developed and honed fiercely, when the big occasion arose; Parlour raised his game when many more gifted shrunk into the shadows. Upon the arrival of Arsene Wenger and with his career drifting, it would have been easy for Parlour to surrender to identity crisis and drift into the league`s lower lights. But where there is crisis there is opportunity and Parlour grabbed that opportunity, he often speaks very warmly of Wenger and he realised the chance to better himself as a player and a man under his tutelage and he made damn sure he would earn that right. Most of this was under appreciated in his playing days and even today it is his tough tackling and wide boy lifestyle that attract the most focus, his other qualities are oft dismissed. But I guess, as one football expert once opined, it`s only Ray Parlour.LD.