Scott Parker’s assimilation at Spurs: Proving his doubters wrong yet again

When one looks back on the decision to award Scott Parker the 2010/2011 Football Writers’ Player of the Year Award – West Ham’s first recipient of an individual award since Bobby Moore in 1963/1964 and the first winner of the award who played for a team who had not won a top-level title since Sheffield Wednesday’s Chris Waddle in 1993 – some may doubt Parker’s merits due to his club being relegated, Parker being deemed an unfashionable footballer and because he was a ‘big fish in a small pond.’

Also, Parker was up against high-profile and seemingly better candidates: the lightening-quick and talismanic Gareth Bale; the incredible solidity and leadership of Nemanja Vidic; the unrivalled prolificacy and finishing of Carlos Tévez; the dramatic improvement in the precocious Nani’s consistency and selflessness; and the ‘single-handed’ masterful playmaking of Blackpool’s Charlie Adam. Yet none of these candidates could rival Parker in having a symbiotic relationship with their respective club, marshalling their team in a manager-like fashion, providing an astonishing level of inspiration and commitment to the cause and managing to consistently impress in an underperforming and inconsistent side.

Scott Parker was born on 13 October, 1980 in Lambeth, South London. He attended Haberdashers’ Aske’s Hatcham College in New Cross Gate and was in the year ahead of Shaun Wright-Phillips. From an early age, Parker harboured hopes of becoming a professional footballer and played for his local Sunday league team, Valley Valiants, from the age of 10. Parker supported Tottenham as a child and interestingly, given his now trademark sensibility and tough-tackling, his childhood hero was Paul Gascoigne. Encouraged by his father, Mick, Parker enrolled in the FA National School of Excellence at Lilleshall. Lilleshall, seen as the model and inspiration for all English clubs setting-up their own individual centres of excellence, produced/would go on to produce a host of England internationals, including Sol Campbell, Jamie Carragher, Wes Brown, Michael Owen, Joe Cole and Jermain Defoe. While at Lilleshall, Parker, complete with bowl cut, ‘starred’ in a McDonald’s advert for the 1994 World Cup, where he performed an impressive array of keepie-uppies.

Upon graduating from Lilleshall in 1997, the then 16 year old Parker was signed by Neil Banfield, who oversaw Charlton Athletic’s Academy, and such was Parker’s now often underrated natural ability and ball control, that Banfield rated him as one of the best technicians he had ever come across. From this and Alan Curbishley’s utilisation of youth team products like Lee Bowyer and Paul Konchesky, Parker was handed his first-team debut within weeks of signing his trainee contract. This came as a late substitute in a 0-0 draw with Bury in the First Division on 23 August, 1997. Impressed with Parker’s maturity and composure, Curbishley handed Parker a professional contract on his 17th birthday on 13 October, 1997.

However, regardless of Parker’s promise, Curbishley sought to protect him from potentially intense media hype and was under no immediate pressure to include Parker in the starting XI, with the reliable Mark Kinsella and Keith Jones well ahead of him in the pecking order. From this, Parker was limited to 19 first-team appearances in the next two seasons, but was making a name for himself as a goalscoring midfielder at a reserve team level. Premier League strugglers, Ipswich and Wimbledon, were both linked with Parker in the summer of 2000 but the Englishman remained patient and content with the set-up at Charlton.

With Charlton becoming a solid Premier League outfit, following promotion in 1998, the then 20 year old Parker was loaned to First Division Norwich at the beginning of the 2000/2001 season. Having shown his promise as a dainty and free roaming attacking midfielder for Charlton’s reserves and England’s under-21s, Parker, under the tutelage of Norwich’s Bryan Hamilton in a prematurely cut six-game spell, began to develop a combative and disciplined side to his overall game. His loan spell coincided with an upturn in Norwich’s fortunes, with Hamilton commenting that “Scott was absolutely fantastic and one of the main reasons why we had such a good spell.” With Charlton captain Mark Kinsella suffering from a reoccurring knee injury, Parker was recalled from Norwich and paired with club stalwart Graham Stuart. Such was Parker’s immediate impact and consistency that Kinsella, a Charlton legend who still had a lot to offer at 29 years of age, could not regain his place in the side.

The current Parker staples of tenacious tackling, incredible energy, incessant pressing, ball-carrying and intricate passing were already evident and this led to Parker playing a key role in Charlton’s impressive 9th place finish in the 2000/2001 season. Parker played a further two and a half seasons at the Valley, racking up 92 appearances (including playing every single Premier League game of the 2001/2002 season) and his consistent displays as Charlton’s midfield lynchpin led to a call-up to the England squad from Sven-Göran Eriksson for the friendly against Australia at Upton Park on 12 February, 2003. Despite Eriksson’s reputation for often using all 22 members of his squad in friendly matches, Parker did not manage to get onto the field but it proved to be a blessing in disguise – with an abysmal England losing 1-3 to the Socceroos. The summer of 2003 saw interest in the 23 year old Parker intensify, with Tottenham, Everton, Middlesbrough and the newly taken-over Chelsea all showing an interest. However, only Tottenham and Middlesbrough made bids, that were ultimately unsuccessful, for Parker: £1 million plus the then hot prospect Matthew Etherington from Spurs and £6 million from ‘Boro.

Despite Charlton finishing a standard 14th and 12th respectively in 2000/2001 and 2001/2002, Parker showed no discontentment in the Addicks rejecting offers from the better-placed and wealthier Tottenham and Middlesbrough. Instead, he signed a new five-year deal, a massive justification and compliment for Curbishley after assembling a squad of similarly loyal stalwarts like Dean Kiely, Richard Rufus, Luke Young, Mark Fish, Chris Powell, Radostin Kishishev, Claus Jensen, Kevin Lisbie and Shaun Bartlett. However, Parker was clearly of a different class and along with John O’Shea, Jermaine Jenas, Jermain Defoe, Craig Bellamy and Wayne Rooney, was one of the British Isles’ hottest young talents. Parker had an impressive start to the 2003/2004 campaign, helping drive Charlton’s push for the European places and their Champions League placing for much of the early part of the campaign, and was called up to the England squad for the friendly against Denmark at Old Trafford on 16 November.

Coming on for Wayne Rooney in the 65′, Parker impressed in an otherwise disjointed English display in a surprise 2-3 defeat. To even get into the squad, let alone come on as a substitute, was an admirable achievement by Parker given that Eriksson’s England was dominated, 15 of the 22 man squad, by players from top six clubs: Wayne Bridge, Glen Johnson, John Terry, Frank Lampard and Joe Cole from Chelsea; Gary Neville, Phil Neville and Nicky Butt from Manchester United; Ashley Cole from Arsenal; Paul Robinson, Danny Mills and Alan Smith from Leeds; Danny Murphy and Steven Gerrard from Liverpool; and Jermaine Jenas from Newcastle. From this, Parker was uncharacteristically coy, despite his recently signed five-year deal, on his future at Charlton:

I’m in a position where there are so many good players. It’s going to be difficult for me and it will be harder because I play at Charlton. Frank Lampard has worked so hard and, despite everything going on at Chelsea, has still been in the team. I think of him as having a similar game to mine. It was a brilliant experience being in the squad for Denmark, but I am used to biding my time. If I keep playing well, maybe I have a realistic chance of going to Portugal for the Euros.

Rumours of a £10 million bid from Manchester United in January, with Butt used in part-exchange, from Sir Alex Ferguson, who was planning for the eventuality of life without the veteran Roy Keane, circulated as the January transfer window was about to open. However, on 30 January, following a month-long transfer saga that clearly affected Parker’s mental state with Curbishley citing him as ‘unfit’ for the final week of January, Parker joined Claudio Ranieri’s Chelsea for £10 million. The usually noble and honourable Parker pushed hard for the deal, with Curbishley appalled by his conduct and dramatically below-par effort and performance in training. Despite Curbishley’s warnings to Parker that it was a premmature move, Charlton were left with little other choice and with Chelsea seeking cover for Frank Lampard and Claude Makelele, as well as an increase in their English contingent with rumours growing of an impending homegrown rule in the Champions League squad registration, Parker had his way. It was a sour end to Parker’s fourteen-year association with Charlton, despite having rejected three previous overtures in his stay there and giving three and a half years of brilliant first-team service.

With hopes of winning trophies, being a regular in the England squad and the grass being greener on the other side, Parker planned to follow in the footsteps of Lampard in moving from a smaller London club for a big fee and proving his doubters wrong. However, with Ranieri opting to use a 4-4-2 with wingers, Parker seldom got a start and when he did, he was often out of position on the right-hand side. This was seen to particularly bizarre effect when Ranieri deployed Parker at right-back for the crucial Champions League semi-final first-leg against AS Monaco at Stade Louis II. While Parker did help set-up the opening goal in the 3-1 defeat, linking with Eiður Guðjohnsen who in turn fed Hernán Crespo, he had no previous experience playing at right-back and the episode epitomised, regardless of Parker’s solid performance and his other 10 central midfield/right midfielder appearances at Chelsea that season, Parker’s time at Chelsea. Still, though, such were Parker’s performances in the first half of the season that he was named PFA Young Player of the Year for the 2003/2004 season.

José Mourinho’s arrival in the summer of 2004 was to decide Parker’s fate one way or another, with ‘The Special One’ keen on building a team rather than a group of big-name individuals but also a man with a preference for moulding his own squad with players like Ricardo Carvalho, Paulo Ferreira and Tiago. Tiago’s £10 arrival from Benfica in August proved to be the crucial moment in Parker’s Chelsea career, with an opening spot in a 4-3-3 alongside Frank Lampard and Claude Makelele soon snapped up by the Portuguese. It was a miserable season for Parker: making just 11 appearances for the season, in part down to a broken metatarsal but also Tiago’s form, and failing to play enough games to earn a Premier League medal. It was clear that the 25 year old Parker would seek pastures new come the summer of 2005.

Having refuted January links with Everton, Liverpool, Arsenal, Birmingham City, Aston Villa, Charlton, Wigan, Lazio (Paolo Di Canio recommended the Englishman from his season at Charlton in 2003/2004), Valencia and Atlético Madrid (Ranieri was their then manager), Parker joined Newcastle for £6.5 million in July. Quickly establishing himself as a fans’ favourite and one of the Toon Army’s few consistencies in a roller coaster 7th place finish, which saw Glenn Roeder replace Graeme Souness in February 2006, Parker’s career was firmly back on track. Fatefully and eventually, Parker’s first goal for Newcastle came against Charlton at the Valley on 26 March. It was a brilliant 30-yard thunderbolt equaliser, following Darren Bent’s opener, and such was the sweetness of the strike, following constant booing from the Valley faithful throughout the game, that Parker celebrated the finish with the travelling Newcastle fans. However, Parker’s fine season, which would certainly would have led to a call-up to Eriksson’s preliminary 2006 World Cup squad, was cut short by glandular fever in March, 2006.

With Alan Shearer’s retirement from football at the end of the 2005/2006 season, Parker was named as Newcastle’s captain for the 2006/2007 campaign – symbolising his growing voice on the pitch and his undoubted leadership. Parker was an integral part of Roeder’s Newcastle and this was epitomised in the 1-2 home defeat to Fulham on 9 September 2006, where Parker put Newcastle 1-0 up on 54’ and was substituted on 80’ for Nicky Butt. Part of the reason why Parker eventually came off was his visible sorrow when Jimmy Bullard’s tackle on Parker in the first-half led to the Fulham man being stretchered off with a cruciate knee ligament injury. Within just nine minutes of Newcastle’s talisman going off, Fulham took the lead through Brian McBride on 82’ and Carlos Bocanegra on 89’. Still, though, regardless of Newcastle’s overall poor form, Parker earned himself an overdue recall into the England squad by Steve McClaren for the crucial 2008 European Championship qualifier against Croatia in Zagreb on 11 October.

Deployed as the thankless terrier, mopping up for Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard, Gary Neville and Ashley Cole in McClaren’s bizarre 3-5-2 formation, Parker was one of the few England players who did his job: chasing Croatia’s wingers and covering England’s attacks. Still, though, Parker was tarred with the ‘Night in Zagreb’ title, along with the likes of Paul Robinson, Neville and Peter Crouch, and was one of the few ‘non-invincibles’ in the first XI that night. Nonetheless, Parker continued his impressive club form, scoring 4 goals in a whooping 41 appearances (a personal best), as Newcastle finished 12th but with his family missing life in London and Sam Allardyce looking to appoint Alan Smith as his captain, Parker joined newly-enriched West Ham for £7 million in June, 2007.

With Alan Curbishley being West Ham’s manager, it was clear that the pair had moved on from their fall-out in January 2004, but Parker’s 2007/2008 campaign was ravaged by injury – much owed to fatigue and an intense and ever-present 2006/2007 season with Newcastle. Knee problems blighted a disappointing campaign, which saw Parker make just 20 appearances overall and score one goal as West Ham finished an admirable 10th. The 2008/2009 season was a marked improvement, with Parker winning Hammer of the Year for his tireless drive and consistency in the 32 games he played as West Ham finished 9th under Gianfranco Zola. However, Parker’s time at West Ham is synonymous with his performances when the chips were down and the 2009/2010 and 2010/2011 campaigns reflect this. Parker became the first player since Julian Dicks, West Ham fans’ all-time cult hero, to retain the Hammer of the Year award in 2009/2010 after countless dogged displays in a chaotic season that saw David Gold and David Sullivan arrive and declare, oblivious to Zola, that everyone apart from the indispensable Parker was up for sale.

Parker’s impressive 2009/2010 campaign saw him called-up to England’s preliminary squad for the 2010 World Cup,  but it was not until the friendly against Denmark on 9 February, 2011 that Parker made his first appearance under Fabio Capello – setting a somewhat unwelcomed record as the only English player in history to win a cap at four different clubs. Having signed a five-year deal at the start of the 2010/2011 campaign that made Parker West Ham’s best paid player of all-time, on a reported £75,000 per week, it was clear that the 29 year old Parker saw himself finishing his career at Upton Park – regardless of the managerial instability that led to Avram Grant becoming Parker’s third manager in just four seasons. Amazingly, despite Parker scoring seven goals in 40 games, which epitomised the fact that this was Parker’s peak season and that he was thriving in a self-made free role with his box-to-box running and dogged chase of possession when he did not have the ball, West Ham were still relegated. This was all the more remarkable given that Parker showcased some of the most inspirational commitment ever seen in top-level football, where players are often accused of being big money mercenaries.

Three events stick out from the 2010/2011 that show just why Scott Parker’s character led to his underrated ability finally being recognised by fans, pundits, players, writers and managers alike. Firstly, West Ham were 3-0 down to West Brom at the Hawthorns on February 12, which was already a crucial relegation six pointer. As was seen in games earlier in the season, where Avram Grant failed to rally his troops to even gather some pride after disappointing performances going into half-time (0-0 with Bolton on 21 August, lost 1-3; 3-0 down to Newcastle on 5 January, lost 5-0; and 0-0 with Birmingham on 6 February, lost 0-1). West Ham seemed to lack the bite and scrapping ability to worm their way out of a relegation battle involving up to eight teams at any one point in the season. So, taking the mantle, Parker delivered a stirring teamtalk at half-time, with Carlton Cole hailing it as “inspirational, with Scott being in the zone…reminding us who we were playing for (families, fans, each other and manager) and leaving us with tears in our eyes.” West Ham went on to draw the game 3-3, after a brilliant and passionate second-half display.

Then, Parker gave a virtuoso display in a 3-1 victory over Liverpool on 27 February, 2011: producing a fantastic dinked effort on 22’, before setting-up Carlton Cole to seal the victory on 90′. Remarkably, this individual performance came in spite of Parker having an inhibiting shoulder injury, which had hampered his training for most of the previous week, and he had to take a high dose of painkilling injections after declaring himself fit at the twelfth hour. Incredibly, this unrivalled commitment was again outdone when Parker played the London Derby against Tottenham on 19 March – hours after his father Mick, who had supported his son closely throughout his footballing career and who harboured hopes of seeing Parker play for England that season (having been too ill to previously see him), died after a four-year battle with cancer. Showing immense courage, Parker produced a stirring display as West Ham held out for what could have been a valuable point in a 0-0 draw at White Hart Lane.

Poignantly, Parker was called-up to the England squad for the Euro 2012 qualifier against Wales at the Millennium Stadium just days after his father’s death and fulfilled his father’s wishes with a typical all-action display. West Ham’s notorious vice-chairman, Karen Brady, called for Parker to be awarded a “medal of exemplary courage and conduct.” Sadly, West Ham, be it some of their players, some in the dugout or those upstairs, failed to show an ounce of the incredible diligence, professionalism and inspiration that Parker did and a wholly bittersweet season for the Englishman ended in relegation. Parker’s departure from West Ham seemed inevitable, given interest from a host of Premier League teams and his ambition to play for England, and Spurs finally got their man, after making several bids for the player over the course of his seventeen-year career, for £5 million on 31 August.

Scott Parker’s career has now come full circle: from being deemed overrated as one of England’s brightest prospects of the decade at Charlton and costing Chelsea £10 million, to being constantly overlooked by Fabio Capello while he was playing some of his most effective football at West Ham to being, after some spirited and lauded displays at Tottenham, likened to David Mackay, the key cog behind Bill Nicholson’s double with Tottenham in 1961. Still, while this may seem like hyperbole from Harry Redknapp, Tottenham have gone from being the 13th most successful tacklers in the Premier League to the 4th best since Parker arrived.

The dynamism and balance achieved with Parker, Luka Modrić , Gareth Bale, Rafael van der Vaart and Emmanuel Adebayor cannot be underestimated and with Parker becoming one of the first names on the England team sheet, with Capello finally looking beyond the Gerrard/Lampard axis, Parker is already on his way to proving his 2010/2011 Football Writers’ Award was no fluke.

The Author

Ciaran Kelly

Sports writer and author of José Mourinho: The Rise of the Translator, featuring exclusive interviews with key figures not synonymous with the traditional Mourinho narrative and Johan Cruyff: The Total Voetballer, an ebook which peaked in the Top 40 of Amazon's top 100 Sports Books' chart. I have also written for Britain best selling football magazine, FourFourTwo and other British publications. I am a fully qualified reporter with an NCTJ Diploma in Journalism and a Masters degree in Sports Journalism from St. Mary's University, London.

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