When I was a very young kid, single digits, growing up in inner city London I was one of only two boys in my year at school who supported a London football team. Both of us supported the family team, he was Chelsea and I was Arsenal and that kind of marked us as the odd ones out as everyone else in our class supported Manchester United or Liverpool because as we all know glory hunting has been around forever.
Everyone had a favourite player but what set me and Chelsea kid apart from the crowd yet again was that our favourite players were not “attractive” players. They all liked Kanchelskis, Giggs, Gascoigne etc and he liked Wise and Jones although his favourite player went on to be Zola as he got older and prior to that for a short time it was Rocky who I fel a little unfortunate to have only seen in Arsenal colours for his last 18 or so months. What set me apart as being even weirder was that my favourite player was a) not a first team regular and b) was considered to be a crazy choice when I had so many other fantastic players to love like Merson, Wright, Smudger and Campbell. And I did. I loved all of those players but my favourite was Ray Parlour.
Arsenal fans born in the 1980s like me will sympathise with me when I say that choosing a single player as your favourite can be torturous. Blanking out the football of the early to mid-nineties under Graham you have a pick of league winners, cup winners, double winners and possibly even invincibles all who played breath-taking football.
The teams across my youth boasted Merson, Wright, Adams, Bergkamp, Overmars, Vieira, Kanu and Henry all amazing players whose posters featured heavily on my wall but as a kid I loved none of them as much as I loved Ray Parlour.
I first remember seeing Ray scoring a goal on MoTD and although I can’t remember much about the match with it being over 20 years ago now I remember instantly liking him because of his haircut. Most of the Arsenal team at the time had bowl cuts or short back and sides (which amusingly Ray requested Hoddle’s faith-healing friend Eileen Drewery give him) and Ray had floppy curly locks with a middle parting. “Curtains” were quite fashionable back then but my mum thought it looked silly and refused to let me grow my hair like Ray because I’d end up looking like my older sister who had permed shoulder length hair. Instead I got stuck with a bodged home cut, #2 all over with a complimentary cow’s lick.
All other things aside, including haircuts you’re now glad your mum never let you have I think you know that you truly loved a player as kid when you remember what player you wanted to be when you played football with your friends. I always wanted to be Ray Parlour which luckily for me was never a problem with the other kids but then again I mostly played football on my own or wall ball because I hated all the other kids because they never wanted to pass… hmm maybe Arjen Robben went to my school?
Many of you may remember playing football at lunchtime with a tennis ball and probably used to walk to and from school with a tennis ball of your own and playing football on your commute with your own running commentary.
Mine finished with Ray scoring a screamer from outside of the box, usually on the volley, at least for 98% of the time. Sometimes I’d let Wrighty score a goal if he’d been impressive at the weekend which meant he got one or two from my feet most weeks.
My commentary used to be something like this:
Seaman catches the ball easily and releases it to Adams to start a counter attack. He passes the ball out to the wing and Merson picks it up , he skips past one, past two, superb skill from the number 10 there, he knocks it forward and speeds out to the edge of the box, he chips it, Smudger flicks it on into the path of Wright, Wright is in the box, the defender tries to take the ball from him, he turns, he lines up the shot, he shoots, the keeper blocks it, the ball is loose and WHAT’S THIS, OH MY WORD, RAY PARLOUR FROM OUTSIDE THE BOX, RIFLES THE BALL INTO THE BACK OF THE NET, THE KEEPER HAD NO CHANCE OF SAVING THAT….
And Ray would score 5 or 6 more of those on the way to or from school and a couple more at lunchtime if he was lucky.
I think what I liked about Ray was that he wasn’t the popular choice and his hair of course. There’s always that one kid in class who is a bit different from everyone else and I was certainly that kid in primary school. I enjoyed flair players and prolific scorers but something about the pure ordinary nature of Parlour that drew me to him probably much like people a good 8-10 years older than me were drawn to Perry Groves. Ray and Perry were the sort of players that could give you hope. You were never going to be the next Overmars or Henry but you could be the next Ray Parlour.
Whilst never lauded as a technically gifted player he was hard-working, effective and consistent. Often his best play was the most simple stuff done without any pretences of world-class eyebrow raising skill but that said I still have many great memories of the man dubbed The Romford Pele from his hat-tricks against Newcastle and Bremen to his stand out performance against Inter in 2003 and man of the match performance in the 1998 FA Cup final.
Ray seemed to develop a knack for having an impact on big games, mainly cup finals and it was that knack that probably gave me my favourite ever moment in football.
I was watching the 2002 cup final with the Chelsea boy who laughed when Tim Lovejoy had his infamous “It’s only Ray Parlour” moment.
I don’t know who went more mental when “Only Ray Parlour” smashed the ball into the net, Bradley Walsh or me. I don’t have a video of myself on youtube to compare but I know that after that final I never spoke to the Chelsea boy again.
I was quite upset when we sold Ray to Middlesborough and unlike many other players that have left Arsenal it was not easy to forget him when matchday came around.
I’ve seen Ray play in central midfield and on the wing. I’ve seen him score tap ins, wonder goals and team goals. I’ve seen him make assists, accurate 40 yard passes and perfect crosses but none of these things alone are what endeared Ray to me. It was his grit and determination and ability to do the simple things properly that made him my favourite player.
I’m utterly convinced that if we had a few more players with the determination of Ray to drag us over the line we wouldn’t be staring down the barrel of an 8th season without silverware.
I’ve flirted with many players over the past ten years and despite a few coming close none have replaced Ray in my affections. Your favourite player of all time is always susceptible to change but you’ll only ever have one childhood favourite.
Ray is my childhood favourite and is still my all time favourite player but if he reaches his potential I think Jack Wilshere has a chance of replacing Ray as my favourite all time player and I’m sure Ray would take that as a compliment.
The only thing that could have made Ray better for me as a child was if he was a part of my other great childhood love… Ghostbusters.
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