By Steve Stammers
To some, wearing the captain’s armband is merely a cosmetic exercise - more for show and prestige than responsibility. To Ray Parlour, it is an honour to be cherished and a symbol of the progress he has made through the ranks since he first came to Arsenal as a wide-eyed schoolboy.
“I know that if Patrick Vieira’s fit and playing that he will take over. But while he has been recovering from injury, the manager asked me to lead the team and I cannot tell you what that meant to me.
“And to think that I have followed Tony Adams in some way makes me feel very proud indeed,” said the Romford-born 30-year-old whose tenacity and sheer energy have made him a hero among the supporters in his time at the club.
“I mean, when I first came into the first team squad at the age of 17, my ambition was just to get in the team and play on a regular basis. The thought of being captain never crossed my mind. Tony was here at the time and was superb as a leader.
“He had this presence about him in the dressing room and out on the pitch. Even now when fans come up to me they refer to him as ‘God’. He is in management now at Wycombe Wanderers and I am sure those qualities will inspire him to serve well. He will be a very good manager.
“But for me to be captain recently, that was a big bonus. Arsenal are one of the biggest clubs in Europe, in the world and to lead out the team is a great feeling. Look at the quality we have, Patrick, Thierry Henry, Robert Pires, Sol Campbell, Gilberto - world-class performers.
“At the moment things could’t be better. I love playing and I have been involved in the last 10 matches. To be captain as well is something special.”
There was something of a cameo moment before Arsenal ended Chelsea’s unbeaten record in the Premier League at Highbury. At the head of the respective teams waiting to come out on the field were Parlour and another Romford-born player, Frank Lampard.
“Frank turned to me at the top of the tunnel and said: ‘Ray, look at these stars behind us’. I think it is great that the two clubs had two English players as captains that day.”
Parlour believes he has led Arsenal on some 10 occasions but there is only one blemish on his record - the 2-1 defeat to Dynamo Kiev in the Champions League. And while the traditionally superstitious players will take heart from his nomination in the future, there are maybe on or two who cannot wait for the return of Vieira.
Nothing personal, you understand - it is just that with the chill of winter now settling in, they prefer long sleeves to the short sleeves opted for by Parlour. Traditionally, all Arsenal players wear the same shirt and the length of the sleeves is decided by the captain.
“I prefer the short ones,” said Parlour. “Although if I am captain again during winter, I may have to have a meeting with the players to decide because I know there are a few of them who want long sleeves when it’s cold. For me, the short sleeves are better. I mean, you have to run about more when it’s cold, what’s wrong with that!”
If the winter months are indeed a test of the players’ resolve then Parlour has no problem with that - just as he welcomed his upbringing through the youth system at Highbury. Today’s youngsters, he believes, have it easy.
“Once a month, on a rota basis, me and about six other young players had to go down to Highbury at 7am and scrub the dressing rooms,” he recalled. “Cleaning boots was also part of our duties. No, it wasn’t pleasant and it wasn’t something we looked forward to, not one bit.
“But I believe things like that are character-building. You get to learn to do jobs that you don't want to do and that is part of life. I mean, suppose the young player didn’t make it and he has to go out and find a job outside of football. It will all come as a bit of a shock to him if he has to start digging somewhere at 7am. He will struggle to cope with that.”
No close season would be complete without Parlour being linked with a move from Highbury.
“I’m used to it now,” he said. “It is the same old thing every year. All I know is that I want to finish my career at Arsenal. I have never had any wish to leave and whenever the matter comes up the manager says: ‘Ray, it is up to you’. At my age, somewhere along the line I will have to accept that I won’t be playing on a regular basis. But at the moment I have no wish to leave Arsenal.”
Parlour will not argue with the assertion that since the arrival of Arsene Wenger at Arsenal, his career has flourished under the Frenchman’s management techniques.
“He came with an open mind, I took my chance and hopefully I have not let him down. Under him, the club has gone from strength to strength and I have always had a solid relationship with him,” said Parlour.
“He has the respect of players and if you lose that, someone gets sacked or someone leaves. He has always stressed the need to look after yourself, to eat properly. And he has introduced a system of warm downs - stretching and things like that which are so important.
“The management team now work on a lot of stats. As a player you don’t really realise these things but it gets pointed out to us that maybe one week we have run 10 kilometres while the next it is only seven. The manager knows when you are looking tired and need a rest.”
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