With his new autobiography (complete with its magnificent front cover) on sale now, Ray Parlour has been doing the PR rounds of late, spouting off cheerful, chirrupy anecdotes of his playing days at Arsenal left, right and centre.
As such, an excerpt from “The Romford Pele” appeared in the Guardian recently, in which Parlour reels off a smashing little yarn about the day he and Dennis Bergkamp, in the act of teasing Martin Keown, unwittingly convinced Arsene Wenger to spend £1million on Igors Stepanovs – the Latvian centre-half widely regarded as one of the worst, most cumbersome players ever to have played for the Gunners.
Here it be:
In the summer of 2000 a player turned up on trial at our pre-season tour. He was a tall centre-half. Now, Martin Keown was always worried about people coming in to steal his position. If we had a centre-half on trial, Martin would say he was useless. This big guy from Latvia, Igors Stepanovs, turned up. He was a unit, but seriously, he was not up to standard.
A few of us were on the bench watching as he played in this trial game. Stepanovs is out there and every single pass he made, the boys started applauding, just because we knew Martin would be getting a bit steamed up by it. Dennis Bergkamp was sitting behind Arsène and kept doling out these compliments about this defender. “Great header! Unbelievable tackle!” Igors kicked this one ball 20 yards away from where it was meant to go but it still went to one of our players so we all stood up clapping. Martin’s muttering: “He’s not that good.” He started to point out where he missed a tackle or a header.
That night we went for dinner and laughed about it as we were only trying to wind Martin up. We all knew Igors was nowhere near the standards set by Tony Adams, Martin and Bouldy. But Martin is such an easy target because he bites. Once someone bites it’s too tempting. Dennis seldom missed a trick because Martin would kick him every day in training. He always came out with a blinder to explain it to Dennis: “I’m just getting you ready for what you are going to face in the match.” Martin was a great player, a great character, a great winner. I think we all cared so deeply.
When we got back to the training ground at London Colney a week later we had a surprise though. Igors was sitting there. I said: “What are you doing here?” “They signed me. Four-year contract.”
Incredible. Arsène didn’t know we were just trying to tease Martin. He just kept listening to us heaping praise on this player. And if Dennis Bergkamp stands up and says: “What a player,” Arsène would be entitled to take a bit of notice. I suppose it looked like a bargain at around £1m. No disrespect to anyone from the lower leagues but Igors was a yard behind us on the pitch, it was like taking my brother to training.
The next thing we know we’ve got the biggest injury crisis we’ve ever had at centre-half. And the only fit centre-half we’ve got is Igors and who are we playing at the weekend? Man United at Old Trafford. Going into the game our back four looked a bit dicey really. Oleg Luzhny, Gilles Grimandi, Igors and Ashley Cole, who had to go off at half-time.
Dwight Yorke ran us ragged. Seriously, it was humiliating. They scored the first goal and we managed to equalise. We thought: “OK, we’ll take that.” And then all of a sudden the goals started pouring in and we were 5-1 down by half-time. There is a massive walk to the tunnel at Old Trafford and you could see Arsène was fuming. He hardly every swore or shouted but he did that day. I remember doing the long walk to the tunnel alongside Dwight Yorke and he asked: “Where the hell did you get that centre-half from?” “Look, it’s a long story …”
We sat down in the dressing room and it could’ve been 9-1 as David Seaman actually had a blinder in goal. Arsène started letting off and he’s not a swearer, it just doesn’t suit him, and I’m really desperate to laugh. I’m making no eye contact and I could see Pat Rice in my peripheral vision sending me a look that said: “Don’t laugh. Whatever you do. Do. Not. Laugh.” Arsène was going mad. And that was the only time, in the eight years I played under him, he went crazy at half-time. He was always focused on being calm, recovering and keeping concentrated on what we needed to do. We lost 6-1 and poor Igors barely played again.
And lo, a true cult hero(ish) was born.
The full excerpt, which contains Parlour’s musings on everything from Thierry Henry’s tenuous grasp of Cockney rhyming slang to Steve “Nine Dinners” Bould and his formidable appetite, is available to peruse here.