Football: Lessons of life pay off for Parlour

Arsenal's midfielder has overcome considerable demons en route to the England fold.
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SO RAY PARLOUR'S unlikely resurrection from the floor of a Hong Kong jail is almost complete. Four and a half years ago he was down and out among the petty thieves and other assorted criminals, grovelling around blind drunk - again - uncertain whether his immediate future lay with his football club or in the hands of the prison guards. Fortunately for Parlour, for Arsenal and perhaps England, he was allowed home the next day and has not looked back.

That experience, the result of a brawl with a local taxi driver on a club tour, was one of a number of unsavoury incidents that threatened to lead Parlour straight into the gutter with a bottle in his hand during his early years as a professional. As a drinker, he later admitted, he was Tony Adams' "understudy", the sauce apprentice playing the part with the powerful commitment that his football over the past two years has shown he possesses in abundance.

The Arsenal captain's well-publicised admission to alcoholism, as well as team-mate Paul Merson's similar revelations, was the start of Parlour's own rehabilitation. The arrival of Arsene Wenger as manager turned out to be another godsend for the player, even though many predicted Parlour would not survive once the likes of Emmanuel Petit and Patrick Vieira were drafted in.

But he has not only survived, he has prospered on Arsenal's right flank and while a mis-spent past is betrayed in the weathered face of a 26-year- old former West Ham fan from Romford, everything else about him oozes optimism and a willingness to tackle any hurdle he may find in his path.

"I've got a couple of kids now and that's settled me down a bit," he said earlier this week, evidently delighted to be back in the England squad after the disappointment of missing out on World Cup selection. "I tend to go home to my kids now instead of going down the pub.

"Sometimes it was my own fault, going to the wrong places at the wrong time and a lot of things were blown out of proportion, but it was time to change. I haven't changed that much. I still enjoy socialising but I do it at the right times now and that's how I've changed.

"I think I've trained harder as well. Dennis Bergkamp is the best player I've ever played with, yet you see him out there every day after the other players have finished. So if he can do it everybody else can."

Like Adams and all the other English players in Arsenal's first team, Parlour has responded well to the Wenger treatment. "When he arrived he said, `Everybody's equal now, everyone's got a chance'. It gave me encouragement and I thought, `Well, this is my last chance'. In the past I'd been in and out of the team and some people were getting fed up with me not doing the business. Fortunately the manager liked what he saw, put me in the team and I've been there ever since."

For his part in Parlour's revival, Wenger is happy to deflect the credit. Speaking yesterday, he said: "He would not be with Arsenal now if he had continued the lifestyle he had led. You can't survive the physical demands of the top level living like that. But I have never had any problems with him, he had already changed before I came. He did not play often in my first season but I was impressed by his attitude and team spirit and I decided to give him his chance in the second season."

Parlour quickly became the only English midfield player or forward who can command a regular place in the champions' line-up, but he has still not been picked for England - yet. That may change under Kevin Keegan at Wembley on Saturday, but Parlour's absence from the squad for France led last week to the most direct criticism yet of Glenn Hoddle by his successor.

Keegan said he thought Parlour ought to have been there, further grist to the mills of Hoddle-sceptics, but Parlour himself, called into the squad four times by Hoddle, said: "To be fair, the four times I was here I was injured every time so he didn't really see me train and he couldn't really pick me."

With five major honours already to his name as an Arsenal player, no one could call Parlour an underachiever. The one aspect of his game which leaves room for improvement is goalscoring but even that, with five goals in his last seven games including a spectacular effort against Coventry last Saturday, is falling into place. "It's always nice to score goals like that," he said. "I told Dennis I'd teach him that in training."

"He has improved technically, most of all in goalscoring," Wenger said. "I don't think he would have scored the goal he got on Saturday last year. But the best thing about him is his engine. With him, you always get extra time. He has power and stamina. Being a regular player has changed him as well. It has given him confidence and playing with Petit and Vieira has helped."

With confidence to burn, Keegan might be well advised to blood Parlour on Saturday. "If I get the chance I'll enjoy every minute of it," Parlour said. "Everybody wants to play for their country and I think I'm mature enough to cope with the demands of such a big game now. I've played in big games before and this is just another game. You have to approach it in the same way and give everything you've got. That's all you can do."