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How Ray Parlour straddled a culture clash in English football

Although he won three Premier League titles and four FA Cups with Arsenal, Ray Parlour was capped only ten times for England.

With 20 minutes of the 2002 FA Cup final remaining, Arsenal’s Sylvain Wiltord played a smart pass behind the Chelsea midfield. “Oh, it’s all right,” said the television presenter Tim Lovejoy, a Chelsea supporter, commentating on Sky’s FanZone. “It’s only Ray Parlour.” But Marcel Desailly backed off and Parlour kept advancing, then he whipped in a shot from 25 yards to give Arsenal a lead that Fredrik Ljungberg doubled ten minutes later. It was a fine and important goal but the moment also summed up Parlour: underestimated, underappreciated and never taken entirely seriously.

Although he won three Premier League titles and four FA Cups with Arsenal, Parlour was capped only ten times for England. In part, that was because he was competing for a place with David Beckham, but he wasn’t helped by an incident shortly before the 1998 World Cup, when he suffered a calf strain after being called up to join Glenn Hoddle’s England squad. Hoddle insisted that Parlour see his faith healer, Eileen Drewery. When she ran her fingers over his head as part of her diagnostic process, he asked for a short back and sides. Hoddle didn’t take him to the World Cup.

The story is typical. Parlour emerges as somebody who is open and generous, always up for a laugh, rarely thinking of the consequences. His autobiography is, in essence, a series of anecdotes about drunken japes, lads’ antics and moments of slapstick, though it is rather more engaging than that makes it sound. There have been attempts in recent years to reinvigorate the sports autobiography but this one is unashamedly old school. There are no great meditations on the nature of fame or the meaning of football, but there is something rather ­refreshing about that, even if the tales of eating contests and debaggings may not be to all tastes. And, in a sense, that is reflective of Parlour, who always seemed something of a throwback in Arsène Wenger’s great Arsenal side at the turn of the millennium.

As Wenger revolutionised match pre­paration, introduced such revolutionary nutritional ideas as eating broccoli and pasta and enjoyed great success with his coterie of French and Dutch midfielders and forwards, Parlour was the English anachronism, a blur of energy whose willingness to work allowed the rapid Marc Overmars to take on a more attacking role on the left. It’s perhaps because of Parlour’s prodigious stamina that his technical qualities were often overlooked: the nickname “Romford Pelé” was bestowed by Overmars and it stuck largely because it seemed so incongruous.

Parlour describes himself as a bridge between two eras, between the hard-drinking side of the George Graham era and Wenger’s more enlightened team. Some of the details of the culture clash are revealing. On a pre-season tour of Switzerland, the French midfielder Gilles Grimandi asked to join the English players on a drinking session rather than going to a café with his compatriots. Parlour went to the bar and ordered a small white wine for Grimandi and 35 pints for the five English players there: seven each to get them going.

The drinking is played largely for laughs but there is darkness lurking as Tony Adams, Arsenal’s inspirational captain, is jailed for drink-driving and subsequently admits to being an alcoholic. Parlour writes of his shock and expresses admiration for Adams as he changes his lifestyle, but it is a passing detail. Similarly, he refers frequently to his own love of betting but is mostly silent on the subject of his team-mate Paul Merson and his addiction to gambling. It’s just not an introspective book. Even his divorce, the settlement of which made legal history by taking his future earnings into account, is skipped over, as though he doesn’t want to dampen the mood for too long.

Some of the stories are very funny. The quiet and intense Martin Keown is a constant butt and Parlour suggests that it was a joke at his expense that led to the baffling signing of the Latvian central defender Igors Stepanovs in 2000. Stepanovs was invited for a trial by Arsenal that summer. Keown was always anxious about those who might be signed in his position and so, to needle him, a number of squad members decided to praise everything Stepanovs did. Keown became increasingly wound up but Parlour now wonders whether their praise swayed Wenger, who offered the Latvian a four-year contract. He was never good enough for Arsenal and became a standing joke after a dreadful first half in a game at Old Trafford that Manchester United won 6-1.

It’s not entirely clear the extent to which Parlour believes his theory, but that’s the nature of the book. It is full of good, knock­about stories but the aim is always to get a laugh, rather than to offer any great insight. Occasionally, there are glimmers of something more profound but they are quickly left behind by the next tale of high jinks. Maybe that’s the nature of the man. If nothing else, Parlour’s autobiography suggests that he would be very good company on a night out. 

Jonathan Wilson’s books include “Angels With Dirty Faces: the Footballing History of Argentina” (Orion)

The Romford Pelé: It’s Only Ray Parlour’s Autobiography by Ray Parlour, with Amy Lawrence is published by Century (304pp, £16.99)

This article first appeared in the 16 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Britain on the brink

Photo: NRK
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Skam, interrupted: why is the phenomenally popular teen drama ending before its peak?

The show has been building towards high school graduation – but now it’s ending before its lead characters finish school.

“Have you heard they started their bus already?”
“No!”
“One month into high school – and they started their bus.”

This Skype conversation between Eva and Isak comes early in the first episode of Skam. The phenomenally internationally successful series follows teenagers at a high school in Oslo. The “bus” they're discussing is a key plot point and concern of the students' lives. That’s because, in Norway, graduating high school students participate in “russefeiring” – it’s a rite of passage into adulthood, a celebration of completing high school, and a farewell to friends departing for university or jobs around the country.

Students gather into groups, give their gang a name, wear matching coloured overalls, rent a big car or a van, and spend late April to mid May (17 May – Norwegian Constitution Day) continuously partying. They call it the “three week binge”. It’s a big fucking deal. 

Skam, with its focus on teens in high school, has therefore spent a lot of time thinking about “russ”. The show, which is set at the exact same time it airs, has followed its four main characters Eva, Noora, Isak and Sana (who each have a season of the show written from their perspective, a la Skins), as well as all their friends, from their first few weeks at school in September 2015. In other words, preparations take years, and we’ve heard a lot about the plans for their russ bus.

In season one, Eva has fallen out with her best friend, and is hurt when she hears she is moving on and has formed a new bus, with new friends, called Pepsi Max.

We meet one of the show’s most prominent characters, Vilde, when we see her trying to get a bus of girls together. The show’s five main girl characters, Eva, Noora, Vilde, Chris and Sana, become friends because of her efforts: they bond during their “bus meetings” and fundraising attempts. They flirt with a group of boys on a bus calling themselves “The Penetrators”.

The latest season follows Sana’s struggles to ensure the bus doesn’t fall apart, and an attempt to join buses with rivals Pepsi Max. The joyful climax of season four comes when they finally buy their own bus and stop social-climbing, naming themselves “Los Losers”. Bus drama is the glue that keeps the show together.

But now, in June 2017, a whole year before the characters graduate, Skam is ending. The architect of the girls’ bus, Vilde, has never had her own season, unlike most of her friends. Many assumed that Vilde would have had her own season during her final year at school. Fans insist the show’s creator Julie Andem planned nine seasons in total, yet Skam is ending after just four.

The news that Skam would stop after season four came during the announcement that Sana, a Muslim member of the “girl squad”, would be the next main character. The show’s intense fandom were delighted by the character choice, but devastated at the news that there would only be one more season. “I can’t accept that this is the last season,” one wrote on Reddit.

“I'm so shocked and sad. It’s honestly just...weird. It doesn’t make sense, and it’s not fair. It’s not fair that we’re not getting a Vilde season. Most importantly, it’s not fair that we’ll never get to see them on their russ, see them graduating, nothing. It seems like such an abrupt decision. It doesn’t serve the storyline at all.”

No one has given a concrete reason about why the show ended prematurely. Ina, who plays Chris, said in an interview that “we all need a break”.

Some fans went into denial, starting petitions to encourage Andem to continue with the show, while rumours abound suggesting it will return. 

Many speculated that the show simply became too popular to continue. “I think that the show would have had six seasons and a Vilde season if the show didn’t become popular outside of Scandinavia,” one wrote. “I think the pressure and the large amount of cringy fans (not saying that some Scandinavian fans aren’t cringy) has made making the show less enjoyable for the actors and creators.”

Andem has stayed mostly quiet on her reasons for ending the show, except for a statement made via her Instagram. She recalls how very early on, during a season one shoot, someone first asked her how long the show would last:

“We were standing in the schoolyard at Nissen High School, a small, low-budget production crew, one photographer, the sound engineer and me. ‘Who knows, but I think we should aim for world domination,’ I said. We all laughed, ‘cause I was obviously joking. None of us understood then how big Skam would turn out to be. This experience has been completely unreal, and a joy to be a part of.”

Skam has been a 24/7 job,” she continues. “We recently decided that we won’t be making a new season this fall. I know many of you out there will be upset and disappointed to hear this, but I’m confident this is the right decision.”

Many fans feel that season four has struggled under the burden of ending the show – and divisions and cracks have appeared in the fandom as a result.

Some feel that Sana’s season has been overshadowed by other characters and plotlines, something that is particularly frustrating for those who were keen to see greater Muslim representation in the show. Of a moment in season four involving Noora, the main character from season two, one fan account wrote, “I LOVE season tw- I mean four. That’s Noora’s season right? No wait, is it Willhell’s season??? What’s a Sana.”

Others feel that the subject of Islam hasn’t been tackled well in this season. Some viewers felt one scene, which sees Sana and her white, non-Muslim friend, Isak, discuss Islamophobia, was whitesplainy. 

One popular translation account, that provides a version of the show with English subtitles, wrote of the scene: “A lot of you guys have been disappointed by the latest clip and you’re not the only ones. We do want to finish this project for the fans but we are disappointed with how this season has gone.” They announced they would be translating less as a result.

The final week of the show has been light on Sana. Instead, each character who never received a full season has had a few minutes devoted to their perspective. These are the other girls from the girl squad, Vilde and Chris, and the boyfriends of each main character: Eva’s ex Jonas, Isak’s boyfriend Even, Eva’s current fling “Penetrator Chris” and Noora’s on-off boyfriend William.

It’s understandable to want to cover key perspectives in the show’s final week, but it can feel teasing – we get a short glimpse into characters' home lives, like Vilde struggling to care for her depressed mother, but the scene ends before we can really get into it. And, of course, it takes precious time away from Sana in the show’s final minutes.

Some were frustrated by the characters focused on. “Penetrator Chris” is a particularly minor character – one fan account wrote of his scene: “This is absolutely irrelevant. 1) It sidelines Sana 2) It asks more questions 3) It doesn’t answer shit. This isn’t even Sana’s season anymore and that’s absolutely disgusting. She didn’t even get closure or ten episodes or anything.

“Sana has been disrespected and disregarded and erased and sidelined and that is fucking gross. She deserved better. Yet here we are watching a Penetrator Chris clip. How ironic that it’s not even called just “Christopher” because that’s all he is. “Penetrator Chris”.

It’s been a dramatic close for a usually warm and tight-knit fan community. Of course, many fans are delighted with the final season: their only sadness is there won’t be more. One of the largest fan accounts tried to keep things positive. “I know people have mixed feelings about Skam and who deserves what in terms of screentime this season (etc),” they wrote, “which I totally understand.

"However, everything has already been filmed, so there is nothing we can do about it. I think this last week of Skam will be much more enjoyable for everyone if we focus on the positives in the clips ahead. Skam isn’t perfect. People are allowed to disagree. But let’s go into this week being grateful for everything Skam has given us.”

Some fans choose to look to what the future holds for the show – an American remake. It will keep the same characters and plotlines as the original, and Andem may be involved.

Few think it will be a patch on the current show, but some are excited to have the chance to watch it teasingly as a group regardless. It seems unlikely that the US remake will compare in terms of quality – not least because the original was so heavily researched and tied to Norwegian culture. But for fans struggling to let go of Skam, it can’t come soon enough.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.

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