Scott Parker sounds all the right notes at Fulham

Words By Seb Stafford-Bloor Illustration by Philippe Fenner
March 4, 2019
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There are stories about Scott Parker which illustrate how he was able to go so far in the game. They are tales of his effect on dressing-rooms and testimony to his habit of becoming a team’s moral conscience. Although his side-parting and no frills playing style may have made him an anachronism in the modern Premier League, the intangibles which underscored his playing personality were timeless; West Ham supporters know that, Tottenham fans too, and although he only arrived at Craven Cottage in his career’s twilight, he remains extremely popular at Fulham for good reason.

Parker now finds himself in charge of the first-team on an interim basis. On Sunday, following a heartening debut which ended in defeat but applied some balm after a raw week, he spoke to the media about the culmination of a process which began seven years ago. Parker was a smart player, he was also wise enough to plan for a life beyond the pitch too. Without the profile necessary to default into a job without qualification, he began taking his coaching badges while still at Spurs. Even so, he admitted, there are plenty of his peers who prepare for a second career which never arrives; despite the loss, Parker was just delighted by the chance to apply whatever he’s learnt.

What that is will be shown in time. For now, there’s reason to believe that there’s significant overlap between player he was and the manager he hopes to become and that, at this curious point in Fulham’s history, he is exactly the tonic the club needs. Of course, the range of issues at work on the bank of the Thames go far beyond his pay-grade, meaning that whatever influence he has will need to be accompanied by change throughout the sporting structure. Nevertheless, good decisions tend to come along in twos and threes, and if Parker is extended beyond the end of the season, Fulham will at least have made the first of the many which are necessary.

Press-conferences are largely dull. Rarely do they seem to yield anything of real substance, more often existing as a means of collecting those banal soundbytes which sustain the news cycle. But Parker was captivating on Sunday afternoon. On the left of the media room at Craven Cottage, the first-half of the Merseyside derby unfolded on a large television screen. Given the cut-and-thrust of that match and its implications on the most engaging title races in years, Parker faced a battle to hold the media’s attention. He was interesting, though, and there was barely a sideways glance.

He was cervous and understandably so. Dealing with the press is new to him. Speaking to a bank of journalists while the televisions cameras whir must be intimidating and Parker is neither obviously gregarious or a natural performer. But he was still thoroughly engaging and, importantly, in a way that others typically aren’t unless they’re dealing in controversy.

The temptation is to immediately oversubscribe to his abilities. For the first time in weeks, Fulham actually played with some life against Chelsea. Three days earlier, they had offered the meekest surrender at Southampton, falling on their sword at the first invitation. Before the game at Craven Cottage, the pitchside announcer read out tweets from supporters, all of which pleaded for a performance of substance. Forget the result, they unanimously urged, and just rattle Chelsea’s cage. And Fulham did. Re-engagement was the mission and it was an objective accomplished; the stadium bounced with the sound of invested supporters and Kepa Arrizabalaga had to be at his very best to prevent an upset.

Tactically, it was imperfect. Over the next few days, Parker will likely muse over the influence afforded to Jorginho, Chelsea’s embattled regista, and wonder how it was that his team allowed him so much time and space. But then that’s part of the learning curve and the type of mistake a novice head-coach has to be allowed to make. Suffer and learn, it’s the only way.

But, while the world cannot yet know what to make of Scott Parker the manager, Scott Parker the person is an easier read. He’s unrefined, uncomplicated. Really, he’s a modern update of the fabled proper football man, just without the negative connotations. He speaks about the game simply yet knowledgeably, and exudes a great empathy towards his players. One of his virtues in this situation is that he understands the plight of footballers in an underperforming side. He spoke about how, under certain conditions, a two-yard pass can seem like twenty to anyone chastened be a season of negative experiences and robbed of their confidence. Wise and true, and probably instructed by that bitter struggle he experienced at West Ham, when they suffered relegation in 2011 but he was voted the FWA’s Player Of The Year.

So if there’s such a thing as manager-club synergy, then Parker and Fulham have it: his range of experiences as a player account for every situation in which this club could find itself. He knows the struggle, he knows the over-achievement and, perhaps most pertinently, he knows what it is to rediscover equalibrium in the Championship and, through his time as a young player at Charlton, to find a way out of it.

Admittedly, those are details to pad a CV with, rather than bankable attributes. For now, though, what matters is that Parker is someone who you can imagine a player reacting well to. That quality has no real definition; it doesn’t have a name and it’s often dismissed as woolly romanticism. But it’s real and often what determines whether a squad is willing to extend itself to the extremities of its potential. It’s also discernible to anybody who pays attention, even journalists who are itching to file their copy and sit down in front of a bigger match.

Graham Taylor had it. When you listened to him speak, you found yourself thinking that if you were a professional – if you were slimmer, younger and exponentially more talented – then you would have happily run your blood to water for him. He wasn’t flash or stylish, he didn’t exude the charisma necessary to form the basis of a personality cult, but he was decent and honest in a way that mandated the same qualities in return. Parker strikes that same, familiar chord. Not as loudly and, of course, not with anything like the same achievements in support, but it’s still there. He’s someone with gravity, that you find yourself wanting to listen to.

In the relative warmth of that Chelsea’s performance, it’s easy to get lost in hyperbole. But these are conclusions being seconded by the Fulham dressing-room, too. Speaking to the Evening Standard on Sunday afternoon, Tom Cairney gave Parker a ringing endorsement.

‘If that is what he can do in a few days I wonder what he could do in six months, eight months? I would like to see him given a chance. I speak on behalf of everyone, he is so highly regarded at the club. He has been immense.’

It’s what Cairney would be expected to say, but his words still fit the picture; they’re easy to rationalise. Parker has always been so human that wanting the best for him has been natural. As a player, his identity was that of a someone willing to do anything to finish a game on the right side of the score. Referring to him as a ‘good professional’ was always trite and slightly demeaning, but that’s exactly what he was. He set an example and, during an era when the profession was consumed by its own ego, he remained laudably unaffected. He wasn’t a part-time model or wannabe entrepreneur, he was always a footballer. When he was briefly made England captain by Roy Hodgson, despite more obvious famous alternatives, it was – tellingly – generally accepted as a welcome measure.

But now, at this moment in time, much of what he says – in relation to broader issues which go beyond the pitch – inspire the same, warm reaction. He spoke briefly on Sunday about the erosion of Fulham’s synonyms and how this season’s many mistakes have diluted the club’s association for playing good, attractive football in a family environment. He gets that and he wants to reclaim it. Really, in this day and age and with fans desperate to identify and grasp whatever fibres exist between them and their side, that’s half the battle.

New manager bounce is a known trap. It’s possible that this initial impression has been forged by little more than catharsis and that Fulham’s energy and effort against Chelsea was an illusion which will quickly fade. It’s conceivable, too, that the desire to see Parker succeed will shape the reaction to his performance, slanting analysis in his favour and obscuring whatever deficiencies he’s shown to have.

Perhaps. For now, though, Fulham have sent in the right nightwatchman. He has something. Maybe not an ideology, perhaps not a seductive backstory formed of sabbaticals in South America and late-night coffees with the game’s high-priests, but a look, a sincerity, and an honesty which should dissuade anyone from betting against him.

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