As the world of football is trying to digest the breaking news that Spain have only gone and sacked their gaffer on the very eve of the World Cup, a few of us happen to find ourselves sitting in the affable company of a man who also famously missed out on the Mundial, but for a very different reason.
Arsenal cult hero Ray Parlour — AKA ‘The Romford Pele’ — is, for probably only the millionth time in his life, recalling the bizarre tale of how a wisecrack backfired so spectacularly, it effectively cost him his chance of playing in the finals in France in 1998.
The villain of the piece is Glenn Hoddle, the former Spurs playmaker and one-time England manager whose idiosyncratic belief system would ultimately see him lose that job because of his views on the transmigration of souls.
Which, if you were similarly inclined, might be considered a touch of karma in its own right, since it was the same belief system which had seen him bring his spiritual guru and faith healer Eileen Drewery into the England set-up, a decision which would have particularly costly consequences for self-styled joker in the pack Parlour.
“I got injured,” he recalls, “and I went to see Gary Lewin who was our physio. He knew what I was like because I played through injuries all the time but I had pulled my calf. It wasn’t a bad injury but I would have been out for two weeks.
“She put her hands on the back of my head and, well, I said, ‘short back and sides, Eileen, while you’re there’. I needed a haircut at the time. She starts laughing and I started laughing but in the end it got leaked to the papers.
“She told her husband, he told players, you know what it’s like. Next thing it’s on the back of the papers and Glenn Hoddle at the time took it (to be) a little bit offensive. He never picked me any more. Arsene Wenger phoned him but he said, ‘he’ll never play under me again’.”
Ever wish you hadn’t cracked that gag?
“Yes I do, quite a few times.”
If you were an Irish player, it would practically have guaranteed you a place in the squad.
“I would have been captain, wouldn’t I? (laughs)”
So what did you do during that World Cup summer?
“I think I got married instead — which wasn’t ideal either. (The Parlours’ marriage would later end in a famously costly divorce). It was a really bad year that year for me. But I did watch the World Cup, of course I did. Whether I’d have got an opportunity to play or not (is another question).
“I had David Beckham in front of me in my position, some great central midfielders. But you watch it because it’s the World Cup. I watched it as a kid. Even if I wasn’t involved, I’d watch it, not just England, every game. It’s just the buzz.
“I’d have loved to have been involved in a big squad like that. It would have been an amazing journey to be involved in and it was a good World Cup as well, England were a little unlucky in the end.”
But not as unlucky as Ray Parlour was at the beginning.
Twenty years on, he is in Dublin to help promote the Arsenal-Chelsea friendly at the Aviva Stadium on August 1. That job of work done, he will fly out to Moscow on Sunday, buoyed by the word that, this time around, a little bit of his own character is being allowed free expression in the latest England World Cup squad.
“The talk coming out of the camp is that people are bubbly and having fun,” he says. “When you train, you train hard but when it’s over that’s when you can relax. That’s what some of the foreign lads who came over (to the Premier League) didn’t understand at first. It was so serious where they came from, it was their job. We acted more as mates and they really embraced that.
“It helps because there is so much pressure in football — think about how many people watch the game. You can sit around a table after training and talk about things, not just football but life, and that’s what Gareth (Southgate) is trying to bring. He was a footballer recently so he understands what’s needed. That’s what he’s trying to change because you can’t judge England on qualifying for a tournament: it’s about the tournament itself.
“As long as I see a bit of progression (I’ll be happy), because it’s a young squad, one of the youngest in the competition. In two years’ time, four years’ time, they would have learned a lot together and you might see the best of England.”
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