For much of the 1990s, it was difficult to see Ray Parlour doing much else other than going by the wayside – like several other youth team products of his era. Back in 1992, Mark Flatts, Neil Heaney, Pauld Dickov, and Parlour were dubbed by the Islington Gazette as the “next crop of Arsenal starlets who will take the club forward.” Although Dickov shrugged off his Highbury departure, and gone on to enjoy a good league career, Flatts and Heaney fell off the football map long ago. Ray Parlour’s fluctuating form under George Graham led to rumours that he too was doomed to Highbury rejection. Anders Limpar recalls: “It was clear that Ray was a talented boy, but I think we did wonder whether he could get the consistency in his game to make him a Highbury regular. He could be fantastic in one match, and anonymous in the next. And of course, he was involved in the drinking scene with Tony Adams, so if he was really going to make a name for himself, he’d need to change his lifestyle dramatically.”
Parlour seemed to be in the newspapers for all the wrong reasons. There was the incident in Hornchurch Pizza Hut, where he and Tony Adams sprayed fellow diners with fire extinguishers, and the fight in Bognor Regis Butlins, after which Parlour required stitches in his face. Shortly after Bruce Rioch became Arsenal boss, the midfielder was also involved in “prawn cracker gate” where an irate Hong Kong cabbie chased Parlour with a wooden club, after he threw a bag of prawn crackers into the bonnet of Lai Pak Yan’s taxi. A permanent fixture in Loaded’s Platinum Rogues gallery, his approach to life was in marked contrast with Dennis Bergkamp’s monastic lifestyle.
Arsenal fan Paul Miles recalls: “Ray Parlour’s nickname was the ‘Romford Pele’ which is quite clearly a bit of a p*ss take. In his early days at Highbury, he was probably the most skilful player we had in midfield, and yet he’d be dropped in favour of guys like Hillier and Jensen, who were steady – I suppose – but not spectacular. Parlour seemed lightweight, to be honest, and not especially committed. He had this really untidy mop of curly blond hair, and visiting fans used to wolf whistle him every time he received the ball. In his early TV interviews, he used to say ‘obviously’ and ‘you know’ in every sentence. And most of the crowd would have agreed that he went through phases when he didn’t seem to be able to pass, tackle or shoot, which is a bit of a drawback if you’re a midfielder. I remember the crowd would sort of grumble – there was a low moan of disappointment – when he did something wrong. He was lucky, because if he’d been bought for a fee, we’d have thought he was a waste of money, rather than just a waste of space! When Wenger arrived, I honestly don’t think anyone thought that he’d last longer than a few months at Highbury. Then something amazing happened.”
As we went into the new century, and more and more of the English players faded from the scene, Parlour came to represent the last bastion of Englishness at Highbury.
During the 96-97 close season, Parlour admitted to being a worried man. “I was convinced that I’d be sold,” he recalls. “I thought I’d be on my way out, and Paul Merson would take my place. When I heard that Merse had been sold to Middlesbrough, I realised that I’d been given a second chance. I took a long hard look at myself, and realised that I hadn’t been dedicating myself enough to the game. It was time to try and model myself more on players like Dennis Bergkamp and Patrick Vieira who live a model lifestyle. I woke up to the fact that I could be part of something very special at Arsenal.” Throughout the following season, Paul Miles saw a dramatic improvement in Parlour’s all round game. “I saw him play in those early months, and he looked fitter and leaner. He was making tackles too, which he’s never been too good at before. Adams and Dixon said they reckoned Wenger added another five years to their careers, and I wonder where Parlour would have ended up if it hadn’t been for Wenger. He even started scoring a few goals. If you compiled a DVD of his goals, it wouldn’t be a bad watch, although it might be a bit brief! What I also liked about Parlour was that although he’d improved massively, he was still quintessentially English, at a time when Wenger made it clear that he’d always rather buy more technically gifted continental players. Basically, he was still a little bit cr*p in certain ways. Like, if you look at Bergkamp’s repertoire of skills, and compare them with Parlour’s assets, it’s a bit embarrassing. As we went into the new century, and more and more of the English players faded from the scene, Parlour came to represent the last bastion of Englishness at Highbury. I found that oddly reassuring, and I noticed that while the crowd had always been a bit non plussed with him, the reception when his name was called became warmer over the years. We were actually pleased to see him.”
Parlour also gained a reputation off the pitch as a prankster, who was extremely hospitable to the new foreign players. Christopher Wreh recalls: “On TV, Ray talks quite slowly for the cameras, but otherwise he speaks very fast. He used to enjoy teaching us cockney rhyming slang. He nearly died laughing when, after one game, I came in moaning about my ‘plates of meat,’ and a lot of us went around saying that we’d kick so and so up the ‘bottle and glass.’ His influence had rubbed off. There was also one time when there was a security alert, and we had to all file out of the dressing room. Arsene Wenger had gone to the toilet, and when he came back, he asked us why we were standing there. Ray piped up: ‘It’s because there is a buurmb’ like Inspector Clouseau. The English player fell about laughing, because some of them referred to Wenger by that name. It dawned on Arsene that Parlour was laughing at him. ‘I believe you are joking with me, Raymond,’ came the response. Ray collapsed with laughter.”
Edu recalls how Parlour “….was very friendly and helpful when I joined, and he was keen to take us under his wing to make the transformation easier in to English football. You had to be careful with his advice on the English language, though. If you weren’t careful you’d end up swearing at important people!” Edu wouldn’t confirm whether or not he really told former United chairman Martin Edwards to “fuck off you dirty old b*stard,” or whether it is simply a tabloid myth. Parlour was also referred to in two Irvine Welsh novels – Filth and Glue and famously informed Glenn Hoddle’s spiritual healer Eileen Drury that he’d like a “short back and sides” when she placed her hands on his head. Edu comments: “Every side needed a joker in their side, and Ray’s sense of humour was excellent to raise spirits. But it’s easy to forget what an improved player he was over the years.”
Being brutally frank, if he’d have been at Ajax as a youngster, he’d never have made the grade.
As with many cult Highbury figures, it would be an exaggeration to claim that Parlour won everyone over in his latter years at the club. John Booker remained unconvinced: “I never hated him, and part of scepticism regarding him was that my son John thought the sun shone out of his backside. So it was part of the Father – son rivalry thing. But to me, watching Parlour was like going back ten years. Although he got better, his crossing remained poor, and he relied on square passes most of the time. He never had the talent to actually go past players, either, and he was wasteful with the ball. Being brutally frank, if he’d have been at Ajax as a youngster, he’d never have made the grade. I also used to have a problem with his goal scoring. His shooting, for the most part, was abysmal. I was never entirely sure of what his purpose was, and if you think about players like Pires, Ljungberg and Reyes, they have an abundance of skill in comparison to Parlour. I’m not even sure if most of the crowd really were won over by him. He was the type of player they loved in one way, but loved to hate in another”.
In May 2004, Parlour made an unwelcome return to the front pages of the tabloids, when his former wife Karen won a historic landmark case against him in the high court, and was awarded half of his future earnings as part of their divorce settlement. It coincided with the time at which Parlour’s midfield position was under threat from the emerging Cesc Fabregas. He moved to Middlesbrough in a £4 million deal. Paul Miles explains how the whole episode fits in with his view of Parlour: “There will always be the suspicion that he moved because he needed the cash to pay his ex missus. When Middlesbrough came to Highbury at the start of the 2004-2005 season, he got a great round of applause, but we also took the p*ss a bit by shouting: ‘Does your ex Missus know you’re here?’ at him. He turned round and gave us a slightly rueful grin. So even though he’s not with us anymore, there’s a kind of old fashioned, p*ss taking relationship between us and him which is hard to replicate in the modern era when so may players live the life of monks. Ray was probably the last of a dying breed.”
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