By Daniel Cowan
When I was a young kid 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 our favourite players not being “attractive” players. The other boys liked Kanchelskis, Giggs, Gascoigne etc. The Blues fans liked Wise and Jones, although his favourite player went on to be Zola, and prior to that for a short time it was Rocky who I felt 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 considered to be a crazy choice. He was not a first-team regular and 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.
I first remember seeing Ray scoring a goal on Match of the Day and, although I can’t remember much about the match with it being over 20 years ago, I remember instantly liking him because of his haircut. It's a silly thing to have started my adoration but it made him stand out for me.
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, No 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 who your favourite player was as kid because that was the player you wanted to be when you played football with your friends.
You may remember playing football at lunchtime with a tennis ball and possibly walked to and from school with a tennis ball of your own, playing football on your commute with your own running commentary.
Mine mostly finished with Ray scoring a screamer from outside of the box, usually on the volley. Sometimes I’d let Wrighty score a goal if he’d been impressive at the weekend.
My commentary rarely varied and usually went 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 to Merson who skips past one, past two, superb skill from the No 10 there, he flies past the defender and floats in a cross, 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 five or six 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, apart from his hair of course, was that he wasn’t the popular choice. I enjoyed flair players and prolific scorers but something about the pure ordinary nature of Parlour drew me to him much in the same way people a good 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.
"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."
While 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. 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 cheered more 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 upset when we sold Ray to Middlesborough and unlike other players who 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 have waited so many years for silverware.
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