Football: A real life for ordinary Joe

Injury has just ended another promising career, but Parkinson refuses to take a backward look
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The Independent Online
JOE PARKINSON last kicked a football in the Premiership against Leicester City on 9 April 1997. That was before New Labour came to power. He was asked to play by Joe Royle, the Everton manager, though Parkinson knew his left knee was not really up to it. A few weeks before, he had helped out, ironically, in an injury crisis and been asked to mark Juninho.

The little Brazilian had a score to settle from an earlier encounter and delighted in exploiting Parkinson's evident and painful lack of mobility. By half-time, Parkinson's left leg had developed a familiar dull ache, by full-time he was reduced to walking. Leicester City was worse. At half- time, he told Willie Donachie, the assistant manager, that he would have to come off. "Thanks, Joe, for all you've done," Donachie said simply. And that proved to be the unglamorous end of a journeyman's career.

Last month, after nearly three years of uncertainty, of surgeon's reports and medical bulletins, of hopes raised and dashed, after riding a thousand miles to nowhere and running a hundred marathons in the gym at Bellefield, Everton's training ground, Parkinson announced his retirement. He had prepared himself for the moment, but the one unanticipated emotion was relief. "It means I don't have to lie any more," he says. "Every home game, fans would come up and say, `Hey, Joe, we need you back, when will you be fit?' and I'd say such and such a date, knowing I was lying. Now, they know the truth."

Players often say that one tackle can end their careers, usually as a justification for avarice. Parkinson reacted to the news of Roy Keane's pounds 52,000 a week contract with the same phrase. Good luck to him, get what you can. But there is a particular cruelty and a peculiar sense of loss in Parkinson's dignified and unheralded exit. Partly, it was the timing, the injury coming at the age of 26 just as he had established himself, to his own surprise as much as anyone else's, as a decent Premiership workhorse, one of Royle's "dogs of war", with John Ebbrell and Barry Horne.

Then there was the innocuous nature of the injury itself. "Cruciate, was it?" he is asked most often. "No, cartilage." The sort of injury that modern surgical technique heals in a fortnight. Parkinson remembers the tackle on him, a run-of-the-mill training-ground tackle. As he fell, he heard the click in his left knee and felt the pain shoot up his leg. It was just before Christmas 1996. "I played on for six weeks," he recalls. "But it just got stiffer and stiffer, so I had to stop. That was it then."

He would have the knee looked at and cleaned out, get back training, only to break down again. Eighteen months ago, he underwent pioneering surgery in Sweden. His cartilage was removed, artificially regenerated and put back. Parkinson spent a year doing nothing but riding the exercise bike until the walls of the treatment room resembled a prison cell. He completed pre-season this year for the first time, running hard in a straight line, but the first day he had to twist and turn, to play properly, he knew it was all over. The surgeon in Sweden confirmed it. No more football, not even a kickaround with his young lad. Parkinson went back to his hotel room, sat on his own for 10 minutes and decided to get on with his life. But the sadness goes deeper than that.

All Parkinson wanted to do as a boy was play football. Brought up in Wigan, he spent most of his schooldays dreaming of wearing the red shirt of Manchester United. He played every weekend wherever and whenever he could, for his school, for his club, for representative sides, and when he was old enough, he signed as a trainee for Wigan Athletic on April Fool's Day in 1989 and made his League debut at the age of 16. Four years and a few managers later, he went into the office to ask for a pay rise. It was rejected, so he moved on, not to Old Trafford quite, but to Bournemouth.

It was a quiet, solid, career going nowhere, but Parkinson was happy being paid for doing what he loved. He bought a house in Bournemouth, had just started a family and had shelved the idea of ever playing in the highest division. Until, that is, Tony Pulis, then the Bourne-mouth manager, appeared at his door, saying Everton were interested and did he fancy a move.

Two weeks later, he was at Bellefield, training with the players he had just been watching on television. At the time, in the spring of 1994, Peter Johnson had just arrived as chairman, Mike Walker was in charge and Everton were deeply entrenched in a battle for survival. Parkinson struggled to shed his lower-division inferiority complex.

Then Walker was sacked, Royle was appointed and rewarded Parkinson's evident commitment with a permanent place in the midfield during a brief revival of spirits at Goodison which culminated in a famous victory over Manchester United in the FA Cup final. The day remains a bit of a blur to Parkinson, the whole occasion a bit too flash for his down- to-earth tastes. He preferred the semi-final and the less formal crack afterwards.

The strange phenomenon, though, is that Parkinson played barely two full seasons in Everton's first team, yet he remains one of the most popular figures at the club, the symbol of a more homely age before football was seduced by exotic foreigners and transient values. Parkinson did not realise the full extent of the bond until he walked on to the pitch on crutches to make the half-time draw one Premiership Saturday. The reception brought a lump to his throat. His retirement prompted a flood of letters and faxes from fans, and the club have just granted him a testimonial.

"I'd like to think that's a reflection of what I've put in to the club and the attitude I've had," he says. "More than rubbing my hands and hoping to make some money, it's an honour. It's to say thanks to me and for me to say thanks and goodbye to them, so there's bound to be some tears. Probably only then will the whole thing hit home, how much I'm going to miss it all.

"I could be bitter about it, but that's not the way I am. Yes, my career was cut short but I've looked after myself, I've got a nice house, good family, a decent life and I've won a few medals. I look back on football as a chapter of my life that's closed now. I've got the videos and the cuttings, kept all my shirts and my medals. But what's the point in being bitter? It only rubs off on the people around you and they end up disliking you."

Besides football, which has been his life, Parkinson's other passion is animals. Last week, he went to Chester Zoo to inquire about becoming a keeper and, in the new year, he hopes to do some voluntary work. "I'd be happy to do my apprenticeship or whatever. I wouldn't want to be sitting behind a desk. I want to be outside, in the fresh air, doing some manual work. People are shocked when I tell 'em because it's such a contrast, but I'd do it for pleasure, not money."

Only one thing has angered him through the whole draining saga. "Watching players playing for Everton who weren't bothered when we got beat. It's the problem of bringing in foreign players. That got me down because I'd have played for peanuts." Everton fans knew that well enough. That's why Joe Parkinson is an old- fashioned folk hero.

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