Anyone knowingly comparing himself to the legendary Brazilian may initially be perceived as being somewhat ambitious in his self-appraisal. Not adverse to a slice of self-deprecation, Parlour certainly doesn’t rate his abilities as a footballer as comparable to Pelé. It’s a nom de guerre spoken with tongue firmly in cheek, allegedly gifted to him by Dutch former team-mate Marc Overmars.
Contrary to widely held popular belief however, Ray Parlour was very much more than a workaday, journeyman midfielder. He certainly could ‘look after himself’ in the parlance of the game and once inspired his erstwhile manager, Arsène Wenger, to say “you could follow Ray into the trenches.” Anyone who played over 300 games under the urbane Frenchman’s tutelage however would have required more than a mere ferocious tackle amongst his skill set. In his time with the Gunners, he would demonstrate that.
Parlour began his 14-year spell with the Gunners as a trainee in 1989 and broke into the first in January 1992. His debut hardly promised of the career ahead, as he conceded a penalty in the game against Liverpool and the Gunners lost 2-0. He would learn quickly though, and just seven months later would return to Anfield with a Man of the Match performance as the Gunners pocketed a satisfying 0-2 victory.
For four years, Parlour played under George Graham, gradually increasing his game time as he became an increasingly important element of the Scotsman’s pragmatic team that forged the ‘One Nil to the Arsenal’ chant. It was the arrival of Wenger however, in 1996 that saw the full blossoming of Parlour’ talents that had perhaps been somewhat submerged beneath the overriding need to be a kind of ‘Dogs of War’ combatant in Graham’s set up.
Many on Highbury’s Clock End may well have thought that the Frenchman’s arrival would mean a disappearance of Parlour’s instantly recognisable golden locks from first team action as Wenger took the team off into an entirely different direction from Graham. That wouldn’t be the case however, as he averaged over 40 games a season in all competitions over the next eight years, collecting silverware and playing a full part in the club’s success.
Despite revealing a footballing talent that had largely lain dormant until Wenger arrived, Parlour never lost his tackling ability. Something the quote from Wenger clearly illustrates. Now in a team that featured the likes of Bergkamp and Vieira subtlety with a natural combative nature provided a silk and steel feel to Parlour’s game, shuttling between positions in the centre or on the right of midfield.
In 1998, he was the outstanding player on the pitch as Arsenal overwhelmed Newcastle United to lift the FA Cup and complete the domestic ‘Double’. In 2002, his stunning goal at Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium, curling a shot in from some 30 yards or so was one of the great goals of recent FA Cup Finals, showing a skill that perhaps some thought was the preserve of Bergkamp.
For all that, goals were never really a big part of Parlour’s value to the team. He would never score more than half-a-dozen goals in any of his years with the Gunners. Hat-tricks in Europe against Werder Bremen and in domestic contest against Newcastle United were the exception rather than the rule, but still showed that on his day, he knew where the back of the net was, despite rarely finding himself in positions to hit it as he worked tirelessly to create and provide for others. His team-mates, manager and particularly the fans knew of his worth to the success the club enjoyed, and he became a firm favourite for the Gooners.
A second ‘Double’ followed in 2002 and although still offering a significant contribution to the cause, appearances were beginning to decline. A troublesome knee injury caused him to miss a chink of the action and he only played in 27 of the club’s league outings that term. Injury to Patrick Vieira opened up a space in the Cup Final team though, and of course Parlour let no-one down stepping in the midfielder who was at the peak of his powers at the time, and Arsenal defeated Southampton. The injury, however, would get worse over time.
Across the next two seasons, injury and the arrival of Freddie Ljungberg meant a further lessening of first team opportunities with 28 appearances across all competitions in 2002-03 and 37 the following term. When called on though, Parlour would deliver for his team with his usual application and in his final season at the Emirates, he played in 25 league games as Wenger’s team went the entire league season undefeated. Ray Parlour fully earned his acclaim as part of ‘The Invincibles.’
The glory of that term would be Parlour’s last with the club though with moves to Middlesbrough and Hull City following before retirement from the top-class game in 2007. Ray Parlour was no superstar player, and certainly no Pelé. There are however, so many more lauded players in the game though that have won less. The Romford Pelé remains a folk hero to all Gooners, and that is surely how it should be.