Thursday, 12 May 2011

A Celestrial Farewell

It's just after 9am the morning before he collects his Footballer of the Year Award, writes Ken Dyer, but Scott Parker is already at West Ham's training ground, changed and ready to test his troublesome Achilles tendon. On top of a cabinet in the club's media office stand three big bottles of man-of-the-match Champagne. They all belong to Parker. Last weekend, the Jersey-based Hammers Supporters' club travelled over to present him with their award. Next Monday, he is expected to complete a hat-trick of Hammer-of-the-Year accolades at the club's end-of-season dinner.

Since becoming only the second West Ham player after Bobby Moore to be voted the Footballer of the Year, Scott Parker says things have definitely improved at home. "It has helped me out a bit indoors," he explained to Matt Lawton. "All I ever heard from my seven-year-old son was 'Wayne Rooney, Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard'. Whereas Daddy's at West Ham, at the bottom of the league. I think he was even getting a bit of stick at school. But just the other day I overheard him talking to one of his friends. 'Daddy's Footballer of the Year, you know,' he said. It was nice."

Like young Frankie, Daddy is immensely proud and he is genuinely excited to be receiving the prestigious award at a dinner in his honour at the Lancaster London hotel tonight. Not least because he will be joining a pantheon that includes some of the greatest players the world has ever seen; from Stanley Matthews in 1948 to Cristiano Ronaldo 60 years later. From names like Lofthouse, Matthews, Charlton and Best to Keegan, Dalglish, Keane and Henry. "I think, when I get there on Thursday and see all the past winners, it's going to be a bit humbling for me really," he says. "I'm over the moon and I'm really looking forward to the night. The way I am, I never imagined I'd win it. Especially with us being at the wrong end of the table. But that's partly what makes it quite nice. The fact that the writers still appreciate what I've done over the last couple of years."

For Parker, however, it will be a night of conflicting emotions. A sense of joy that will be tempered by West Ham's current predicament but also, on a far more personal level, the absence of the one man he says was his greatest inspiration; the man who was always there for him and the man who would have been the proudest of all those present. His father.

On March 18, Mick Parker died after a four-year battle with cancer. A week before his son finally made his breakthrough as an England player and a month before his crowning moment. "That's going to be the biggest miss," says Parker. "The fact that my dad isn't going to be there, sitting there with my wife, Carly, my sister and some of my closest friends. It was the same when we played against Wales. He would have been chuffed to bits to have seen me play like that for England. He was old school. Never that forthcoming with praise, but if he said I'd played well I knew I must have. In many ways he was a typical football dad. He worked as a lorry driver, later as a taxi driver, but he took me everywhere, from the age of nine. Even for the two years I spent at the national school at Lilleshall, he travelled up to watch me every weekend."

There is something very British about Parker, notes Lawton. Something inside him that does not crave sympathy for what has happened. He actually asked his club to try and keep a lid on news of his father's death ahead of the game against Tottenham he appeared in the following day. But at the same time he has no objection to reflecting on the kind of tragedy that confronts most of us at some point during our lives. "My dad was 63 when he died and he'd been ill for a long time," he says. "He was doing really well for a while. But it was probably a year ago when he started to struggle again."

On the Friday Mick died at the Maidstone Hospital in Kent, Parker had gone to visit him after training. "He was in a pretty bad way," he says. "And I remember asking the nurse for some pain relief for him. He was on morphine and I'm glad he was. If he had known he was dying there's no way I could have coped with it. I stayed with him all the way, until he got comfortable. And we talked. My dad was a Spurs fan and as I was leaving he said, 'Play well tomorrow. I'll watch you on Match of the Day'. I said, 'Course I will, Dad. See you tomorrow'. That evening I joined up with the team at the hotel, ahead of the game. But then, at about half 11, I got a call from my sister. My dad had called her saying he was really struggling and he passed away later that night. I left the hotel immediately to go to the hospital and after dealing with things there I went home. I spoke to the medical staff at the club and said I'd see how I felt in the morning before deciding if I could play. It was obviously pretty late by the time I got home and I didn't get much sleep as you can imagine."

He chose to play because it really was what his dad would have wanted; because it was the last thing he asked him to do. Parker takes some comfort in delivering on his promise, performing a vital role in a goalless draw at White Hart Lane that earned Avram Grant's side a precious point.
He says it is the finality of death that has shocked him. The realisation that the conversation they had before he left the hospital that afternoon really was the last one they would enjoy.

"That's where I am at the moment," he says. "The football has been a release from it all, but it's hit me harder in the last three weeks because I've been injured. There's been more time to think about things. After a game I would always speak to my dad. A couple of times I've started to call him and then thought, 'Shit, he's not going to answer'. That's what gets you, the fact that you're never going to talk to them again. On the outside I'm trying to be strong for my family but inside I have to admit it hurts."

It feels slightly inappropriate, admits Lawton, to steer the conversation back towards football. 'It's OK,' says this thoroughly decent man. 'My dad wouldn't be the least bit offended.' Such a response epitomises the Lambeth-born midfielder's spirit. It has been almost the only shaft of light for long-suffering West Ham fans in an otherwise unremittingly bleak season. Hammers supporters now regard him in the same way they adored tackling machines from other eras, men like Billy Bonds and Julian Dicks. As Bonds said recently: "He's a throwback, really. The art of tackling is dying with the changes in the way the rules are interpreted but Scott is one of the best tacklers still in the game."

Those same fans, though, have sadly accepted that their hero will leave in the likely event that their team are relegated. It will be hard for them and difficult for him but a parting of the ways is inevitable, thinks Dyer. "I'm like every player, I want to be playing at the highest level I can and in the Premier League," he says. "I don't know what the future holds for me but, for the moment, I'm still keeping everything crossed that West Ham stay up. Otherwise . . ."

The east Londoners languish bottom of the Barclays Premier League with just two matches remaining and Parker admits it will be a big ask to secure their place in the Barclays Premier League next season. The 30-year-old, who is back in training and hoping to be involved at Wigan on Sunday, concedes: "It's not looking good. It's out of our hands a bit even if we win both our games. I would be lying if I said we had a good opportunity of surviving but there's still a slight chance we can do something. All we can do is win our final two games and then see what happens. You never know."

In truth, Parker and his team-mates have been battling against the big drop for two long, draining and debilitating seasons. "This is not something which has just happened this season. Last year was similar, albeit we have a better squad this time," he says. "It's not nice, it's stressful and everything becomes much more difficult. It's not as enjoyable because you're always looking at other teams' results. It's quite tiring really, in every sense, not just physically but mentally and emotionally. I always believed we would get out of it, that we would build something strong enough to climb up the table. I used to be a lot worse than I am now. I still take my work home and it does affect me but I've matured, grown up, I have a family and I needed to realise I have that responsibility now.

"At the end of it, as long as I can come off the field and say I have done everything I possibly can, then that has to be enough. If it's not meant to be then that's it really and unfortunately we've had a lot more of those 'not to be weekends' than enjoyable ones. It's normally on the Sunday that I try to reflect, try to think first of all what I could have done better, how I could have better helped the team. I'm very self-critical.

"There have been times when everyone has thought we would be okay, when we've looked a decent team and earned good results. I know a lot of West Ham fans are struggling to understand why this squad are where they are and I share their feelings. I honestly thought, at the start of the season, that we would comfortably hold our own and with the additions in January I was sure we would be okay. If you look at our squad now there is no way we should be where we are. We are there because we've underperformed at times and been very inconsistent. That's the reality.

"I echo those thoughts of the supporters, though. Our squad should be good enough to stay in the League and maybe, at the end of the season when we sit down and ask ourselves where it went wrong, some of the answers may be glaringly obvious, that there were some issues there. We have chopped and changed the side due to injuries and out-of-form players - it has never been consistent - that has been a disruption. In the end, perhaps it has been the inconsistency of players' form which has been the telling factor."

Relegation would surely be one of the low points of Parker's career, together with his first England start, the disastrous 2-0 European Championship qualifying defeat against Croatia in October 2006. "I felt low for some time after that," he recalls. Fabio Capello clearly sees something he likes in Parker but the Italian did leave the midfielder frustrated by the fact that, having selected him for the pre-tournament training camp ahead of last summer's World Cup, he did not give him a single minute of match time to prove himself worthy of a place in the final 23-man squad.

"I don't think I'm any different to the player I was last season," he says. "I'm exactly the same. I was obviously playing some good football last season because I went to Austria. But at that moment in time there were clearly players ahead of me. In football you always need your chance to come. And this year, with a few injuries, I have been given another chance. Throughout my career I've noticed that when I get a chance I need to take it. Some players I've seen over the years, get time to breathe a bit. I can't explain why but I don't think I've ever been afforded that luxury. I broke into the first team at Charlton at 16, didn't really take my chance and went missing for the best part of four years. With England it had been the same and I'm sure, had it not gone well for me against Wales, you never would have seen me in an England shirt again. It sounds harsh but I certainly felt that was the reality. To be honest, I thought after the whole experience in Austria it was unlikely I'd ever get another chance.'

He is back now, though, and determined to stay in that team after a particularly impressive display against Wales in March. "Breaking into the England team this season has been fantastic. I've waited a long time and I had given up a bit of hope," he says. "I understood it was always going to be difficult, that there were players in front of me and rightly so because they were the ones who had helped England reach the World Cup finals. I wasn't surprised that I didn't go to South Africa but now I want to make the most of it and keep playing for my country."

He quite rightly feels now that he has 'a foot in the door', that he has become part of Capello's plans and he says he owes much of that to Mike Griffiths, the sports psychologist who works with the players at Upton Park. "It was probably two years ago that Mike came into my life and into my career," he says. "To find your weaknesses on the field can be quite easy. If you're weak on your left foot you go and hit some more balls. But for a footballer to admit there might be a mental weakness there, that maybe at times their thoughts decapitate them, that they can't perform at the level they want to, is not easy. It's not something players like to admit to, because it does sound like a weakness. Nobody wants to admit that they've panicked because there's 60,000 people out there and they can't perform.

"I realised I was the sort of person who would think a lot and probably analyse things too much. And at times I felt it was holding me back, and I knew if I could improve that part of my game it would help me. Mike has helped me no end. Speaking to him, him understanding me, using different techniques. We speak religiously the day before a game. It's helped massively.

He puts things into perspective for me, because it is just a football match. We are all human. We all feel the same things. I get paid to play football but I'm also a normal bloke and if I give the ball away three times on the bounce I'm going to start thinking, 'Bloody hell, it's going to be one of those days'. And it's those kind of thoughts that can paralyse a player."

Serious injury came just as he was beginning to impress Jose Mourinho but he does now wonder if his time at Chelsea would have been more successful had he worked with Griffiths then. "I was very young when I went to Chelsea and I had some serious injury problems there," he says. "But maybe if I'd known Mike then it would have gone better for me. I maybe wouldn't have left as soon as I did. It's like anything. It's like having kids. My first child was born seven years ago and it was a lot easier with the third than it was with the first, because you are older and wiser. It's the same in football."

That wise old head is certainly something West Ham need right now as they try to secure enough points from their final two matches to remain in the Premier League. "It's very nice to get the personal accolades but, as I've said before, if I'm driving home after the last game of the season and we've been relegated it will all count for nothing. At the end of the day it's a team game and I'm part of a team, part of a squad and if we get relegated I'm part of that, too. It's why we all have to fight, because when a team gets relegated it affects everyone at the club; the people who can't decide things on the pitch; who have to rely on us to do that for them.' That's just one more reason, states Lawton, why he's Footballer of the Year.

Which brings us to back to tonight, at the Royal Lancaster Hotel, where it is the turn of the Football Writers' Association to anoint the newest star to that illustrious galaxy of names. It will be, Parker says, the proudest moment of his career so far and surely unique, for the winner to come from a club looking odds-on to be relegated. "I'm a bit nervous but I'm looking forward to it," he says. "My family will be there, my wife, her family, my agent and close friends. I've written down a few things for the speech. I wanted to do it myself rather than someone else but whether it comes out as I want it to is another matter. I didn't think I could win that award really, not this year anyway because it was always 'Scott Parker - relegation battle'. To see that the football writers have appreciated what I have tried to do this year, though, has given me a massive boost. I've been looking at the list of previous winners and to think that my name will be joining them now - it makes me very proud."

Parker has been at West Ham since July 2007 and signed a new five-year contract in September 2010, making him the highest-paid player in the club's history. It will be a wrench when and if he has to leave. "They're a massive club and it's a great shame that, over the past few years, they have been dogged by one problem after another. When the current owners took over it looked as though there would be more stability but then came this season and the poor results on the pitch. It's very disappointing and it hurts me a lot. I have the utmost respect for the fans. Yes, I'm winning awards because I'm playing the best football of my career. Why? Because I feel wanted here and it feels like home."

But for how much longer is the question. On nights when skies are clear and the Moon is not too bright you can look deep into the past and find fading stars. West Ham fans know this better than anyone. Looking into the past, of course, is the easy bit. Glance at the night sky and what you see is history and lots of it- not the stars as they are now but as they were when their light left them. "From the minute that I signed for West Ham I learned what a good club they are, the history, the fan base," Parker recalls. Stars leave all the time but it is rare is to spot those precise moments of celestrial farewell. When the brightest star in east London takes to the stage this evening it seems likely Hammers fans will be witnessing just such an event.

No comments:


Copyright 2007 ID Media Inc, All Right Reserved. Crafted by Nurudin Jauhari