Scott Parker retired from football last week. That announcement came at the end of four years with Fulham during which he has gradually disappeared from view, but his departure still seems significant.
Not, of course, because Parker – now approaching his 37th birthday – retains any great footballing relevance, but because he comprised a group of traits are becoming rarer. He was wholesome and likeable; his socks were always the right length, he didn’t stumble out of nightclubs at dawn and nothing he did was predicated on any need for attention.
But those are superficial qualities and Parker was also a player of great texture.
One of the main differences between football in a stadium and football through television’s lens is the speed of the game. Everything and everybody moves in a frenzy, with the ball pinging around the field with impossible accuracy. The inevitable conclusion is that the game played on Premier League pitches and the one enjoyed by millions in parks and fields on a Sunday morning are, for all intents and purposes, entirely different sports. One can be played by men, women and children of all different shapes and sizes, the other is the sole preserve of the super athlete. Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi and the glinting few, each of them carved in the heavens and gifted to the game.
Parker existed alongside the Gods, in spite of being so obviously mortal. There were no tricks or flicks in his game, only that strangely effective three-point turn and miles of accompanying heart. Maybe that’s what allowed Parker’s contribution to endure? Despite a career which looks nomadic in retrospect, he was embraced by nearly every set of supporters he played for. His move to Chelsea from Charlton was a poor career decision and he played for Newcastle at a strange time in their history, but fans at West Ham, Tottenham and Fulham all grew a quick, deep and lasting appreciation for him, in spite of that transience.
But it’s not hard to understand why that was: he embodied the struggle of top-flight football. To watch him play, particularly without the ball, was to appreciate just how attritional the game is and how much of a physical toll it took. When Parker blocked a shot on the edge of his own box and left his feet to dispossess an opponent, he would have to peel himself off the floor afterwards and push himself back to his feet.
What he did clearly came at cost and that’s what we want to see: not super-athletes covering many miles a game without breaking a sweat, but someone who looks like us, conveys the attrition vividly, and who has to limp from the dressing-room to his car afterwards. People react to that, especially in England: it’s the same energy which fuels the reverence for Terry Butcher’s bleeding head and provides endless sympathy for Paul Gascoigne’s lifelong struggle with himself. It’s the cliched British fondness for the underdog. Parker never burrowed quite as deeply into the collective consciousness, but his reputation depends on many of the same sensitivities. He was yesterday’s man, fighting for his place in today. Someone who didn’t come with extravagance, pace, or even a body built for professional football, but who would nevertheless rise to its peak and, fleetingly, captain his country.
Parker wasn’t inferior and neither did his career represent any kind of sporting miracle, but it still provided a re-emphasis of all sorts of blue-collar traits which were becoming less fashionable. He did his job. Most memorably at Spurs, he ground away in the shadows while Luka Modric danced in the light, sweeping the stage for those who were more talented; never have the hard yards looked more heroic.
And it is to Tottenham where he will now return, with the club announcing on Friday that he will become their u18 coach and ambassador. Inevitbaly, the reaction to that was entirely positive. Of course it was. Teenage prospects need technical guidance, but at that stage of their career – or life, even – they depend on the nourishing light of a role model. And who better to play that part than Parker, a man who existed at the top of the game by extracting every ounce of talent from his body.
Honesty, authenticity; that’s what he represented. He offered one of the last glimpses of a footballer in his original form, before the affectations arrives and before it became plainly obvious that they come from different worlds.
Scott Parker belonged to the era before the airbrush,