All aboard the time machine we’re going back to the early 1990’s for the latest instalment of Highbury Heroes. A natural comedian off the pitch, but don’t be fooled by that, because on the pitch he worked as hard as anyone, a winner who gave his all for Arsenal Football Club. It’s only Ray Parlour, or as Marc Overmars named him “The Romford Pele”.
Ray was a versatile player equally adept in the centre of midfield or wide right. He was such a committed and wholehearted player. A good passer and crosser of the ball and he won his fair share of headers. Ray was combative and could get stuck in with the best of them, he also gave excellent defensive cover to Lee Dixon when the defence was under the cosh, a player you’d always want on your side when the chips were down. He also had a potent shot on him as well.
Ray’s greatest asset though was that he was a bundle of boundless energy and stamina. Forever making tireless, powerful, penetrating runs at the opposition’s defence. You couldn’t miss him especially earlier in his Arsenal career when he had that long blonde curly mop of hair which drew such derision from the opposing fans with their Shirley Temple chants.
Of course Ray was one of the players who’s Arsenal career spanned both the George Graham and Arsene Wenger eras. I don’t think many would argue though that Ray’s finest years were with Arsene. Under the Frenchman his game matured and I feel he reached his full potential working under him.
Arsene Wenger said this about Ray “He had strong physical qualities, which explains why he played twelve years at the top with Arsenal. He had fantastic stamina and as a manager you knew you could rely on that. Many times I didn’t see him so much in the first half but I kept him on because I knew the longer the game lasted the more you would see him. He always had a strong second half. He was a train who could go at a certain pace – not electric but he could maintain high energy the whole game”.
Ray Parlour was born in Romford, Essex on 7th March 1973 and he was brought up in Rush Green just a stones throw from West Ham’s training ground. His dad Dave was a West Ham fan as well and it’s a miracle really that he slipped through West Ham’s net and he ended up going to Fulham. West Ham simply never approached him.
Ray has two older brothers John and Jimmy and it brought him on in leaps and bounds by playing with and against his brothers and their mates, who were not only older but bigger and stronger as well. When Ray was about six years old, his brother John who was four years older would say to their dad “Ray was running rings around all my mates today”
When Ray was nine he signed for Fulham. A Fulham scout had come to watch another kid but it was Ray who impressed him playing for his Sunday side Cloparcro in the Echo League. There was a lot of upheaval at Fulham and at one stage there was talk that they would merge with Queens Park Rangers and some of the coaches left as well. Steve Rowley Arsenal’s Essex scout had been after signing Ray for ages and this was the perfect time for him to leave Fulham and sign for The Arsenal.
Ray loved every minute at Arsenal. He was under the watchful eye of Pat Rice who made the apprentices work hard and put in maximum effort. There was no better person than Pat Rice to instil in the young apprentices the Arsenal way of doing things. Among Ray’s contemporaries were Andy Cole and Paul Dickov. The apprentices had to sing a song at Christmas in front of the entire first team squad. Cheekily Ray sung “Little Donkey” with his eyes firmly fixed on Tony Adams as he sung it. Tony ended up chasing Ray round the training ground and tipping a bucket of cold water over Ray’s head!
There were six or seven England Youth Internationals at Arsenal who’d been at Lilleshall, the Football Association’s School of Excellence. In training one day Ray smashed into Steven Clement, who was the England captain, with a crunching tackle. Ray apologised. But Clement looked at Ray and said “I’m the England captain, what are you tackling me like that for?” Pat Rice immediately stopped the training came over and said to Clement “What did you say?” Clement replied “Oh I’m the England captain and you can’t kick me like that”. Pat said “You’re not the England captain here” and told Ray to kick him harder next time! Which Ray did with relish. Clement was obviously talented but that isn’t enough. If you want to make it to the top you have to have the right attitude, with the drive and determination to succeed and Ray Parlour had that in spades.
Ray’s debut was a baptism of fire. On 29th January 1992 away at Liverpool. Ray had Rocky Rocastle alongside him in midfield and he really helped Ray settle into the game. But disaster struck just before half time, when Ray gave away a penalty bringing down Ronnie Rosenthal. Jan Molby put it in the top corner and Ray was devastated. Tony Adams then showed what a great captain he was by getting hold of Ray and tried to gee him up and raise his spirits, but Arsenal ended up going down 2-0 that day. After three more appearances coming on as a substitute, in Ray’s second start against Wimbledon away he had much better luck scoring after just 37 seconds! In a 3-1 win.
In Ray’s second season at the club he made great strides and started 16 League games and also played in two cup finals. He had an excellent game in the 1993 League Cup Final against Sheffield Wednesday at Wembley, which we won 2-1 with Paul Merson and Steve Morrow scoring the goals. But he didn’t do himself justice in the FA Cup Final against the same opposition at Wembley, which ended up a 1-1 draw, Wrighty scoring our goal. George Graham left Ray out the Replay. He didn’t even get a place on the bench in that dramatic late 2-1 victory, which looked to be heading for a penalty shoot-out, before Andy Linighan headed home the winner.
The following season 1993-94 Ray played 29 games but George didn’t select him at all in the successful Cup-Winners Cup campaign. In the summer of 1994 Ray and Tony went to America on holiday and due to an overindulgence in food and drink Ray came back a stone and a half overweight for pre-season training. George blew his top and fined Ray two weeks wages. Cheekily Ray said to George “But Isn’t that what pre-season is for. Isn’t it about getting fit again!”
1994-95 was an eventful season in Arsenal’s history. George Graham was sacked in February over the infamous bung scandal. Stewart Houston took over as caretaker manager till the end of the season and Arsenal finished a lowly 12th in the table. But once again the Cup-Winners Cup was Arsenal’s salvation, reaching the final again, this time in Paris against the Spanish outfit Real Zaragoza. Ray was a lot more involved this time playing in seven of the ties including the final. Ray had a decent game that night, but he clashed heads with Martin Keown as they were challenging Gus Poyet for the ball. There was claret everywhere, Martin’s face was a mess and he had to go off and Ray had to have stitches in the back of his head but was able to play on. Just as a penalty shootout was beckoning Nayim scored that freak goal.
It was a depressing night all round. The French royally took the piss with their bar prices. We bumped into Frank McLintock who said to us “Have you seen the f****** prices of these beers!”. There was also trouble before the game near the Eiffel Tower. The French police were absolute bastards, just itching to whack the Arsenal fans with their batons. I remember on the way to the stadium walking past a van load of French police and they were all waving little Spanish flags at us out the windows. Then after the match the police tear gassed the Arsenal fans and kept us in the stadium for ages, before marching us miles away in the opposite direction to our hotel!
Of course off the field Ray got himself into quite a bit of trouble over the years to say the least! Most of them involving his drinking partner and mentor Tony Adams. There was the time when the two of them went out drinking on Christmas Eve in the afternoon and ended up having a drink in Palms Hotel near Romford. Ray said “Tony whatever we do I have to get my mum a present for Christmas” “No problem Ray. We have plenty of time. We can have a few beers and then we will have a look and see what we can get”. It wasn’t until the shops were shutting that Ray remembered he hadn’t got a present for his mum. Tony came up with the bright idea of putting one of the hotel’s potted plants into the back of Ray’s car as a present for Ray’s mum! When they eventually left the hotel the police were waiting for them after being tipped off by the hotel staff and they had to take it back to the hotel and put it in its rightful place. They both had to report to the police station on the following Tuesday and as they walked in the desk officer said “Here they come. Bill and Ben the flowerpot men”. Luckily the hotel didn’t press charges so the incident didn’t make the newspapers.
Unfortunately the episode in the Pizza Hut in Hornchurch did. When some Spurs fans on another table were really giving Tony Adams some horrendous stick, with plenty of references to donkeys and they also started lobbing carrots at Tony. Ray was fuming with them and pulled a fire extinguisher off the wall and unleashed the entire contents of the fire extinguisher all over them and the restaurant! That ended up costing Ray a fine of two weeks wages, which was £700.
But It was when Arsenal went on a post-season tour of the Far East at the end of the 1994-95 season that Ray got into his worst spell of trouble. Without George to keep them in order it meant the players were drinking like there was no tomorrow. One night Ray and Tony got back to their room after a heavy session and while Ray was in the bathroom he heard Tony talking on the phone. He came out the bathroom and Tony was already sparko on his bed. About an hour later Ray heard a knock on the door and it was room service. “No, you must have it wrong, we’ve not ordered any room service. Must be someone else” said Ray. “Room service for Mr Adams” said the man. The man then pushed seven trolleys of sandwiches into the room! Somehow Tony had ordered 30 rounds of sandwiches! Next morning Tony woke up and looked at all the trolleys of sandwiches “Were you hungry or what last night, Ray?” He asked!
On the last night in Hong Kong it all went wrong for Ray. Tony Adams, Chris Kiwomya and Ray were heading back to their hotel after leaving a club at 7am, to get the bus from their hotel to the airport at 8am. They were the worse for wear got lost and ended up in the Triad area of Hong Kong. They’d bought some prawn crackers and as they passed a local man leaning over under the bonnet looking into the engine of his car Ray chucked some prawn crackers in the engine. They all laughed as the man stood up banging his head on the bonnet. Next thing they were surrounded by locals attacking them from all angles. Ray clumped one of them. Tony ran off in one direction Chris Kiwomya who had been scrapping with some other locals ran off in another direction and the police turned up and arrested Ray.
Tony Adams quickly sobered up and knocking on the Chairman’s door said “Excuse me Mr Hill-Wood, We’ve got a big problem. One of the players has been arrested and got into trouble in town”. The club left Travel Manager Paul Johnson in Hong Kong to assist Ray and everybody else in the Arsenal party flew home. They let Ray out on bail that evening. The barrister the club had hired Adrian Huggins came to see Ray that night. “You’ll probably be lucky. You might get away with six months in prison!” Needless to say Ray didn’t sleep a wink that night.
The next morning Ray turned up for court in his Arsenal suit and the place was swarming with photographers. Ray’s barrister stood up in court confirmed Ray’s name, mentioned Arsenal Football Club and apologised to the taxi driver and the people of Hong Kong on Ray’s behalf for everything he had done and that was it. All Ray got was a £180 fine plus another £100 for the taxi driver. Result thought Ray, but that wasn’t the end of it by a long way.
The shit had well and truly hit the fan when he got back home. More cameras at Heathrow and the newspapers had a field day. “Arsenal Ace Nicked in Red Light Punch” was the headline in the Sun. “Parlour Has Shamed the Nation” wrote the Mirror. Peter Hill-Wood also gave a scything newspaper interview on the incident. Ray’s parents were also embarrassed by the whole thing as well and Ray really regretted what he’d done especially after what happened next.
Ken Friar summoned Ray to his office. “Mr Friar before you start. I am really sorry. I know I put Arsenal’s name in a terrible light and that we got bad publicity”. “Absolutely” Ken replied. “Look I’m really sorry, that’s all I can say”. “Well, I’m fining you two weeks wages” said Ken. “I totally accept that. It won’t happen again”. Said a rueful Ray. “Yes you had better make sure it does not happen again”. Said Ken. As Ray turned for the door Ken said “Ray come back a minute, we’ve got another problem”. “What’s that” Ray answered. “The barrister. We have his bill here. Obviously Arsenal got the best lawyer we could find in Hong Kong” Said Ken. “Yes Mr Friar, thanks very much for getting me that” replied Ray. “We arranged it but you have to pay for it” said Ken. Ray got the shock of his life when he looked at the bill and saw it was £12,000! “Mr Friar, I am only on £400 a week. How am I supposed to pay £12,000?” Said a crestfallen Ray. “Well you are due a £15,000 signing on fee in January so we can take the £12,000 out of that” replied Ken. Crafty old Ken had done Ray up like a kipper.
Many years later Ray bumped into Ken at the 2015 FA Cup Final and they talked about that incident. “I was only teaching you a lesson” said Ken. Ray replied mischievously “In that case I have learned by now. Can I have my £12,000 back then!”
A chain of events then happened with perfect timing to change the course of Ray’s career. Bruce Rioch was appointed manager for the 1995-96 season and the club splashed the cash on Dennis Bergkamp and David Platt. Dennis made a massive impression on Ray and all the other Arsenal players, with his professionalism and dedication to his craft.
Ray said “He was the one that changed our whole attitude towards training, just watching the way he handled himself from day one was an eye-opener. It made you think: hold on a second, I need to up my efforts here. He was so professional: the way he trained, the way he conducted himself every day. He was intent on improving his technique by staying behind after training, chipping balls onto the bar on his own. Again, again, again. You’re thinking: he’s a much better player than us and he’s practising more? He wants to keep that level or even raise it. That changed our attitude. I started to stay behind after training then and work on my game a little bit more”. The penny was starting to drop with Ray.
Although Arsenal finished 5th and managed to qualify for the UEFA Cup, with a late Dennis Bergkamp screamer giving us a 2-1 win against Bolton Wanderers in our final game of the season at Highbury, all was not well. Bruce Rioch had fallen out with Wrighty and Rioch was forever talking about how great Bolton were, which really irritated the players, as Arsenal as a club were several notches up from Bolton with all due respect to them. There isn’t much that Dennis Bergkamp and Wrighty could learn about the art of being a striker by watching John McGinlay! The Board sacked Rioch in August 1996 and Stewart Houston stepped in once more as caretaker manager. Just a month after that Houston left for QPR to take over as manager and Pat Rice took over as caretaker manager. At the end of September the man David Dein wanted as manager before the Board choose Rioch finished his contract with Grampus Eight in Japan and became the sixth managerial change at Highbury in about 18 months if you include the caretaker managers. But the new man who nobody had ever heard of was going to be holding the managerial reigns for over 20 years and revolutionise not only Arsenal Football Club but the whole of English football.
Also in September 1996 Tony Adams called a team meeting and dropped a bombshell by announcing to the squad he was an alcoholic and later said “Ray, I really enjoy going out with you, but if you’re going out don’t phone me up” Ray understood and respected what Tony said. They still went to training together and were still room mates on away trips. But Ray started to slow down with the drinking. The Tuesday Club faded out and Ray didn’t drink during the week anymore. This couldn’t have come at a better time as Ray was at a crossroads in his career. He was 23 and it could have gone one way or the other.
Arsene Wenger’s arrival at the club came at the perfect time for Ray. He needed to improve technically and he got his head down and worked. The training methods were fantastic and Ray couldn’t wait to go in every day. It was always different, always made your mind work. When Ray stayed behind Arsene would stay too to help him and the other players. Ray had always had the ability, but was inconsistent and the drinking and socialising were to do with that. But he knew he had to change his ways to stay as part of the team.
By the start of the 1997-98 season Ray was flying. He just got better and better. He’d gone from an ugly duckling to very fine swan indeed. That season Ray scored 6 goals, which was only one less than the entire amount he’d managed to score in the previous six seasons.
Two key games that season were the 3-1 home defeat by Blackburn Rovers. After which Arsenal went the rest of season unbeaten and the 1-0 victory against the league leaders Manchester United, at Old Trafford when Marc Overmars got the winner. This was the match where both the team and the fans believed we could overhaul United and win the Title. In April there were memorable 4-1 wins against Blackburn away, with Ray scoring a brace and a 5-0 thumping against Wimbledon at Highbury to go top of the League. This was part of a sensational run of eight wins on the trot in the league to overtake Manchester United. Culminating in the 4-0 thrashing of Everton at Highbury and the famous 4th goal by Tony Adams from Steve Bould’s pass and Brian Moore’s famous commentary “And that sums it all up” as The Arsenal stormed to the Title.
The Double was on and a chance to finally get some revenge against the Geordies for the two FA Cup Final defeats they’d inflicted on us in 1932 and 1952. Arsenal beat Newcastle United 2-0 at Wembley, with goals from Marc Overmars and Nicolas Anelka, Ray got the assist for Anelka’s goal and was brilliant that day, deservedly winning the MOTM award. Ray was also voted the Arsenal Supporters Player of the Season.Arsenal win the 1998 FA Cup Final
1998-99 could have so easily have been another Double. We lost an epic Semi-Final replay at Villa Park to Manchester United, a game we should have won. United were down to ten men and we were just a Dennis Bergkamp penalty kick away from knocking them out in the last minute of the game, after Phil Neville had fouled Ray to give away the penalty. I’m convinced had Dennis scored it would have given Arsenal the momentum to go on and win the Title which we lost by a single point. Though Ray again scored six times in the league that season.
1999-2000 was a disappointing season as we ended up finishing 18 points behind champions Manchester United. We also got knocked out in both the League Cup and FA Cup on penalties. After getting eliminated by Barcelona in the CL. We went all the way to the UEFA Cup Final, including Ray scoring his first hat-trick for the club away at Werder Bremen in the Quarter-Final of the UEFA Cup, before losing yet again on penalties to Turkish side Galatasaray in the Final. Ray incidentally was the only Arsenal player to score in the penalty shoot out.
In 2000-2001 we came runners-up to Manchester United for a third season running. But we reached the FA Cup Final against Liverpool, with the game being played for the first time ever at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff. We went 1-0 up through Freddie Ljungberg and absolutely battered Liverpool. We should have had two stonewall penalties. But got mugged with two late goals from Michael Owen. How we lost that final I’ll never know. We played so well that day and throughly deserved to win. Ray came off the bench that day. Ray also scored his first league hat-trick for the club in a 5-0 win at the Emirates against Newcastle United earlier in the season.
2001-2002 was a glorious season for both The Arsenal and Ray Parlour, who cemented his place forever in Arsenal’s history by scoring the first goal in a 2-0 victory, against Chelsea in the 2002 FA Cup Final at Cardiff. A wonderful strike that will be remembered always for Tim Lovejoy’s comment on Sky’s Fanzone of “It’s Only Ray Parlour” just as Ray was about to smash the ball into back of the net! An equally spectacular strike from Freddie Ljungberg wrapped up the FA Cup for the Arsenal.“It’s only Ray Parlour!”
It was up to Old Trafford on the Wednesday and a win would clinch the Title. The last thing Manchester United wanted was for The Arsenal to take the Title off them on their own patch and they tried to kick Arsenal out the game. But with combative players like Patrick Vieira, Martin Keown and Ray in the side that was never going to happen. We had such strength in depth that although Thierry Henry and Dennis Bergkamp didn’t play we could replace them with two forwards of the calibre of Kanu and the scorer of the winning goal Sylvain Wilford, who was on hand to tuck the ball away, after a Freddie Ljungberg shot was palmed away by Fabien Barthez. The 1-0 victory gave Arsenal the Title and another Double and the team had gone the whole season unbeaten away from home. The team including Ray were magnificent that night and domestically Arsenal won their last twelve games of the season to catapult them to another Double.
The following season Arsenal finished runners-up in the League five points adrift of Manchester United. But managed to win the FA Cup at Cardiff, beating Southampton 1-0, with a Robert Pires goal. It was Arsenal’s third FA Cup Final in a row and was Ray’s fifth.
The Invincible season of 2003-04 was Ray’s last as an Arsenal player. One of his proudest moments as an Arsenal player came when he captained a weakened Arsenal side without Patrick Vieira, Dennis Bergkamp and Lauren, which pulled off a stunning unexpected 5-1 victory against Inter Milan in the San Siro. His last appearance came against Fulham at Craven Cottage, on the 9th May 2004, in a 1-0 win with Jose Antonio Reyes scoring the winner. By then Ray wasn’t always first choice but comfortably played enough games to get yet another Title winners medal.
Ray signed for Middlesbrough in July 2004 on a free transfer and was an unused substitute in the 2006 UEFA Cup Final against Sevilla which they lost 4-0. With Ray’s vast experience you’d have thought he would have started, or at least have been brought off the bench.
In February 2007 he joined Hull City for one final season and helped save them from relegation. He came out of retirement in 2012 to play for Wembley FC, along with some other veteran players such as Martin Keown, Grahame Le Saux and Claudio Caniggia to play in the FA Cup only to be knocked out by Uxbridge.
Ray won 10 England caps but it should have been more. After the great season he had with Arsenal in 1997-98 Glenn Hoddle called Ray into the England squad. But after being sent to see faith healer Eileen Drewery and famously telling her as she stood behind him with her hands on his head, as he sat in a chair in the middle of a room “Short back and sides please!” After that Ray never played for England until Glenn Hoddle was sacked and Kevin Keegan took over.
Ray Parlour played 466 times for The Arsenal and scored 32 goals. He wasn’t the most naturally gifted player. He even admitted in his autobiography that of the 40 boys on Arsenal’s books when he arrived he was only about the tenth best there. but he worked hard at his game and had the right attitude and desire to make it. You need players like Ray in your side. Against Sheffield United in the FA Cup Semi-Final in 2003 Neil Warnock was screaming at his players “Kick them! Get stuck in!” But Ray along with the likes of Martin Keown and Patrick Vieira were ready for them, steaming in and kicking them harder. Sheffield United didn’t know what had hit them and Warnock started moaning that Arsenal were kicking them! It was ingrained in the Arsenal players from their youth days. Pat Rice always used to say “Make sure you win that first tackle”. They were brought up to learn the Arsenal way. Pat Rice was a hard taskmaster rubbing his finger along a surface in the dressing rooms “A bit of dust there, do it again” he’d bark. It was a tried and tested way of doing things that had served Arsenal well and Pat had been one of those apprentices himself. Ray and Martin Keown were the last remnants of that system and I think after they left the club suffered for it.Ray’s 10 finest Arsenal goals
I’ve met Ray a couple of times. His dad Dave who I worked with introduced me to him when we went to see him do an evening telling some great stories with Frank McAvennie at their local Rush Green Social Club, which Ray described as being like the club in Phoenix Nights! My son won a raffle for two tickets for any match at the Emirates and I later met Ray to collect the tickets. The match we’d chosen was the club’s 125th Anniversary against Everton. Ray got out his car smiled handed over the tickets and said “You’ve picked a good game there. There’s going to be fourteen Arsenal legends introduced on the pitch. Fif you include me!” and laughed. Typically Ray made a joke of it. But there is no doubt in my mind that “The Romford Pele” is a true Arsenal legend.Ray telling an audience a few funny stories
As always thanks for reading hope you enjoyed Highbury Heroes
Started going to Highbury in ’66. Season ticket holder since ’76. Love The Arsenal. Need I say more?