Having missed out on automatic promotion by a single point, Troy Parrott’s MK Dons fell to Wycombe Wanderers in the League One playoff semi-finals.
Championship football was tantalisingly in reach for both the Dons and Parrott, but the two parties seem set to go their separate ways this summer as Parrott returns to parent club Tottenham Hotspur. The forward now enters one of the most critical points of his career, with his future very much up in the air. While the deafening hype surrounding the Dubliner may have died down in recent times, Parrot ended his time in Milton Keynes on the most promising stretch of his senior career so far.
It is not difficult to remember a time when that hype was reaching fever pitch. The football media questioned Jose Mourinho about Parrott’s lack of game time in the face of another injury to Harry Kane, and he was hailed as the next great hope for both club and country. Mourinho decided that the time wasn’t quite right and Parrott was sent out on loan to Millwall the following season for his first real attempt at senior football. Fanfare surrounded the announcement, perceived to be the next step in his trajectory to stardom. It didn’t go well. An ankle injury wrecked his pre-season, and he didn’t make an appearance until late November. He struggled with the physicality required from Gary Rowett’s reserved wingers and isolated strikers, failing to score a league goal or complete 90 minutes for the club. It was off to Ipswich next, with Spurs deeming the Millwall experiment a failure by January. The drop to League One allowed him a bit more freedom, but his struggles in front of goal continued. Parrott had only hit the back of the net twice by the end of the season, an admitted “shock to the system” for a player who had only known success up until then.
There was some brief respite on international duty that summer, as he spared Ireland from an embarrassing defeat to Andorra with two well taken goals. He had started the 2021-22 season brightly too as he returned to League One with MK Dons, notching three goals and four assists in 11 games. Things took a turn for the worse however, as Parrott started in the ignominious home draw against Azerbaijan, forming a toothless attack alongside Aaron Connolly. Parrott only managed 15 minutes for Ireland in the six games between then and the Lithuania tie in March, and his club form dropped off after a fruitless November call up. He had missed four club games during that camp and looked lost when he returned. A five month goal drought followed, hardly convincing Kenny to give the young forward another shot in the starting lineup. While adapting to new positions and roles within the side go some way to explaining the drop off, there was no hiding the forward’s frustrations.
Despite his early promise, Parrott was in danger of wasting another season of development. He had looked disinterested, and his previous efforts had diminished. Something had to change. Gradually, it did. Dons’ form turned around, and Parrott drew praise despite his struggles in front of goal. He was playing in every position across a front three, and manager Liam Manning spoke encouragingly in the press:
He’s in a good spot. He now has to keep at this level and recognise why he’s playing well and reflect and continue doing that.
A change in attitude came at the perfect time. Reflecting recently on that critical moment, Parrott said:
I was in and out of the team and I just realised that ultimately you get one shot at this football game and where I was at the time wasn’t helping me get to where I wanted to get to. I realised I just needed to do more. I needed to be playing if I wanted to get to where I wanted to get to.
He has improved as a player significantly during his time in Milton Keynes, capable of dropping deep to link play while demonstrating the close ball control that led to his goals against Andorra and Lithuania. Filling out his previously slight frame helps in this regard. This allows him the ability to contribute positively to games without scoring, an issue that plagued him last season. Such qualities paired with a high work rate have endeared him to Dons fans. His efforts were finally rewarded with a brace against Cheltenham, with Manning commenting that he had “worked so hard recently and it’s great to see him get the goals tonight”. Parrott could barely hide his delight either, still “buzzing” after his brace and celebrating joyously.
A moment of genius for Ireland was soon to follow. After 95 minutes of frustration against Lithuania in March, the ball broke kindly for Parrott outside the box. He had been a bright spark since his introduction early in the second half, but had seen his teammates struggle to break down their lowly visitors. As the ball bounced awkwardly and the seconds dwindled away, Irish fans could have been forgiven for thinking this was another false dawn. It wasn’t. Parrott unleashed a ferocious shot which travelled through the desperate onrushing Lithuanians and into the bottom corner. The stadium erupted, but no one had a bigger smile than Parrott.
An onlooker may have been confused as to why Parrott and the Irish fans were celebrating so exuberantly. After all, this was a friendly match against the team ranked 138th in the world. For the fans, this was the continuation of an upward trajectory and another reason to get excited about Stephen Kenny’s young side. For Parrott, the goal was a moment of pure catharsis years in the making. One could almost feel the tension and frustration unleashed via his right foot that night. The young striker had put the noise around him to one side for a brief moment, and delivered for his side.
The positivity continued as Parrott’s club entered the League One run in. Parrott netted in three consecutive games, including his club’s goal of the season in the derby against Wimbledon. He also chipped in with an assist in Dons’ doomed promotion bid. Parrott scored again in the second leg of the playoff against Wycombe, but it ultimately wasn’t enough. The goal brought him to five goal contributions in nine games for his club, ending his personal season on a positive note despite his side’s disappointment. If Manning’s public comments are anything to go by, he’ll be more than happy to have the Dubliner back in Milton Keynes. However, Parrott seems to have closed the door on that possibility, bidding farewell to the club on Instagram in the aftermath of the Wycombe game. He likely has his sights set on a higher standard of football, and delivering during League One’s crunch period will have done his prospects no harm.
Further opportunities abound as Ireland look towards the Nations League and Euro 2024 qualification. The national side have had their struggles going forward, and Adam Idah’s injury coupled with Jamie McGrath’s poor form have left significant gaps in the attack. Will Keane’s audition against Lithuania was fruitless despite a prolific season for Wigan, and James Collins seems destined to be an impact substitution for his country. Parrott has had to watch from the bench as Chiedozie Ogbene and Callum Robinson lock themselves in as starters, but circumstances have given him the chance he has been looking for. A Robinson-Parrott-Ogbene forward line is full of pace and trickery, with each player able to play across the frontline. Parrott’s ability to link the play and drop deep should also help Ireland build from deep. Their 3-4-3 formation with two flat midfielders can leave gaps to the attack on occasion, something Parrott can help to remedy. Kenny seems to still think highly of him, evidenced by Connolly’s banishment from subsequent Ireland call-ups since Azerbaijan while Parrott has remained part of the squad. Parrott will hope to join Robinson and Ogbene in the Championship next season. If he can carry his club form into the summer games, he may just find himself with the kind of suitors he’s looking for.
It is easy to forget that Parrott is still only 20 and in the midst of just his second full senior season. The starlet has clearly learned a lot in recent times, and seems finally ready to take his development at his own pace. Reports suggest Spurs plan on loaning him out again next season, but currently do not see a path to the first team for him under Antonio Conte. Parrott can’t control the whims of managers, but he can control his own effort levels and performances, asserting he can still “do more to grow as a person and a player”. There is still plenty of time for him to change minds in North London, and plenty of opportunities beyond Tottenham if he fails to do so.
After such a rapid ascent to Irish football’s consciousness, the last couple of years have forced Parrott to ground himself and reassess his career, and allowed him to take a breath away from all the media attention. He acknowledges those silver linings too:
I have realised it can go one of two ways, and the way I want it to go is up.
Parrott has the talent, the belief, and the attitude to establish himself for Ireland. Now he has the opportunity.