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 appears in the 14 Jun 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Britain on the brink