Alex Parker: Scottish international full-back revered at Falkirk and Everton
Saturday 23 January 2010
Alex Parker was that comparatively rare football being, a full-back and a folk hero. Renowned as a poised and stylish yet formidably combative performer while excelling in Everton's confident charge to the League Championship in 1962-63, he was revered no less passionately at his previous club, Falkirk, with whom he was awarded all but one of his 15 caps for Scotland. Accordingly, he occupies a berth in the Toffees' Hall of Fame and was considered an automatic selection for the Bairns' team of the millennium, both honours which were not assigned lightly. Further afield, too, professional regard for the amiable Ayrshireman was virtually boundless, with no less an authority than his exalted countryman Matt Busby, the founding father of the modern Manchester United, declaring that during Parker's prime he knew no peer in his position, anywhere in the world.
One of the secrets of the stockily built Scot's success was an extraordinarily well-honed sense of timing. On the field, he elevated the sliding tackle into something not far short of an art form. Though by no means a sluggish mover, he was no greyhound, either, a circumstance which habitually he rendered irrelevant by choosing the precise moment at which to make his challenge. So often a dashing flankman might surmise that he had eluded the stretching Parker, only for the ball to be whisked away to safety at the last split-second.
Crucially, he was adept at positional play, invariably choosing his ground with care, jockeying his opponent so that their clash would occur near the touchline to avoid the risk of conceding penalties. In truth, so precise was his technique that, even inside the box, that hazard was negligible.
Off the field, the Parker timing was equally effective in his delivery of droll one-liners. For instance, during his spell at Falkirk, goal-line clearances became a speciality, and he gloried in describing his good friend, the net-minder Bert Slater, as the best goalkeeper he had ever played behind.
However, there was far more to Parker's contribution than doughty defending and quick wit. He was an accomplished all-round footballer who passed the ball with the elan of a play-maker and whose sense of adventure – he was one of the first overlappers in the Scottish game – reflected the fact that as a boy he had been an attacker. He was immensely consistent, too, and although his aerial work was no match for the majestic likes of the Welsh giant John Charles, generally he was solid enough in that area, an asset he attributed jokingly to a garden practice session supervised by the enthusiastic wife of his manager at Falkirk, Bob Shankly.
After attracting widespread attention as a teenager with the Dumfriesshire junior club Kello Rovers, Parker was recruited by Falkirk, newly promoted to Scotland's top tier, in 1952. Initially he was employed by Shankly at inside-forward, then switched to wing-half, but it was not until he was moved to right-back in 1954-55 that he gained a regular place.
Thereafter he thrived, emerging as a key figure in the Brockville club's regular battles to avoid relegation, and in 1957 he was voted Scotland's player of the year. That season he shone as the Bairns won the Scottish Cup, overcoming Kilmarnock in a replayed final, and appeared to be consolidating an international career which had begun two years earlier against Portugal at Hampden Park three months short of his 20th birthday.
For such a precocious talent at an unfashionable club a transfer was inevitable, and it materialised in June 1958 when he joined Everton, valued at £18,000 in a package deal which also took winger Eddie O'Hara to Merseyside. That summer Parker, who had already collected six under-23 caps and regularly represented the Scottish League, became the first Goodison Park man to appear in the World Cup finals but, perversely for a thoroughbred operator on the threshold of his pomp, his outing against Paraguay proved to be his last for his country.
In truth, he was below his best in the dispiriting 3-2 defeat by the South Americans in Norrkoping, Sweden, but it was perplexing in the extreme that he was never to be called up again. True, his long-term replacement on the right flank of defence was the polished Eric Caldow of Rangers, but earlier the pair had struck up a promising partnership with Caldow at left-back, and with all due respect to others who wore the No 2 shirt – the likes of Dunky MacKay, Bobby Shearer and Alex Hamilton – they did not appear to be in Parker's class. Thus supporters of the Evertonian's cause were not to be swerved from their belief that the selectors were discriminating against him because of his "Anglo" status, a common enough perception in the cases of many fine players who crossed the border during that era
At Goodison, however, after he was forced to delay his debut because his National Service commitments with the Royal Scots Fusiliers took him to Cyprus until November, his merit was recognised as handsome. Parker and O'Hara had arrived thanks to the growing influence of the pools magnate and future club chairman John Moores, who had persuaded the hitherto parsimonious board to loosen their purse strings and provided them with the means to do so. It was the club's first major signing for years and although O'Hara was a disappointment, Parker flourished apace.
He was taken aback when the idealistic Carey was sacked in 1961, despite guiding an improving side to fifth place in the top division, but the appointment of the new manager Harry Catterick, a stern disciplinarian, proved to be an inspired decision. Two years later the Toffees were champions, finishing a comfortable six points clear of Tottenham Hotspur and playing a compelling brand of football which fused elegance with power.
Catterick's team boasted admirable balance, with Parker meshing immaculately with two right-wingers, Billy Bingham in the first half of the campaign, Alex Scott in the second. The marquee names were the strikers, the subtly artistic Alex Young and the venomously darting Roy Vernon, but there wasn't a weak link anywhere in the line-up.
At that point Parker was in his prime at 27 but, sadly, soon he fell prey to recurring hamstring problems and during 1964-65 he lost his place to Tommy Wright, a flintily committed local boy who went on to play for England. Thus stymied, the Scot stepped out of the top flight that autumn, accepting a £2,000 switch to Fourth Division Southport, where his former Goodison comrade Bingham was now in charge. Using his experience to compensate for loss of pace, he slotted in effectively at Haig Avenue and was prominent as the Sandgrounders earned promotion as runners-up to Stockport County in 1966-67.
Having reached the veteran stage, in January 1968 Parker became player-manager of the Northern Ireland club Ballymena United, where he remained for nearly two years. There followed a brief stint with Drumcondra of Dublin before he returned to Southport as a coach early in 1970. At season's end the Sandgrounders were demoted and Parker replaced Arthur Peat as manager, leading his team to a creditable eighth place in the basement division before leaving the game in 1971 to enter the licensed trade.
He proved a popular landlord of the Swinging Sporran in Runcorn, always ready to yarn about his playing days but invariably referring to his own achievements with characteristic modesty. Later Parker returned to his homeland to live in Gretna and in 2009 he suffered the amputation of his left leg. Still he relished a joke, though, chuckling delightedly when his compatriot and old Goodison chum Alex Young remarked: "At least it's not the one you tackle with."
Alexander Hershaw Parker, footballer; born Irvine, Ayrshire 2 August 1935; played for Falkirk 1952-58, Everton 1958-65, Southport 1965-68, Ballymena United 1968-69, Drumcondra 1970; capped 15 times by Scotland, 1955-58; managed Ballymena United 1968-69, Southport 1970-71; married (one son, one daughter); died Gretna, Dumfries and Galloway 7 January 2009.
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