Football: New faces for 1999 - Practice just perfect for Parker

Art imitates life as a schoolboy steps up from a television commercial to a career in professional football.
THE ROOM at Charlton Athletic's training ground was marked "Homework" and Scott Parker, a member of the club's productive and much-praised school of excellence, often used to sit in it trying to concentrate on maths or English, rather than dreaming about becoming a professional footballer. This week, for the first time, he was able to relax there and reflect on having started a first-team game. Touchingly, he seemed rather thrilled by it all.

"When I was a little boy sitting in the crowd, watching the teams run out, I just dreamt of it," he said. At half past one last Saturday, with half-a-dozen appearances as a substitute behind him, the dream came true as he was given the nod to start Charlton's FA Cup tie at Blackburn on the right of midfield. He earned good reviews before succumbing to cramp late in the game as familiar defensive howlers undermined his team.

Now aged 18, Parker was old enough and wise enough to play things simple; no juggling the ball on his thigh or flicking it up and catching it on the back of his neck, which were the sort of tricks that had first brought him to the nation's attention five years ago, in a televised advertisement for McDonald's. These days he seems a little embarrassed by it all, but has no need to be. In coming through the audition from 50 of his contemporaries, he demonstrated qualities of skill under pressure, a sunny disposition and commendable patience in his first exposure to the media - it took six hours of filming in a back garden in Friern Barnet to produce the 30-second commercial.

The theme, according to the advertising agency, was that practice makes perfect. The 13-year-old took it to heart, and within a year or so was determined that a football career was for him. Remarkably, he had been training with Charlton since the age of eight and would stay with them despite the efforts of the club he supported, Tottenham, and others, to prise him away. At the FA National School at Lilleshall, he shared facilities with older northern boys such as Michael Owen ("a really good lad"), Wes Brown and Michael Ball and, while others of his own age grew homesick, Parker grew up. Highly regarded by the England hierarchy, he played international football at under-15 and under-16 level and has now graduated to the under- 18 side, preparing for their Uefa youth championship qualifying group in March.

Charlton have long been aware of what a potentially good player they had and knew that being able to offer early opportunities of first-team football, as they had done to youngsters such as Robert Lee and Lee Bowyer, was a powerful incentive for him to stay with them.

The point was dramatically made early last season when left-back Paul Konchesky, at 16, became the youngest player to turn out for the first- team, to be followed soon afterwards by Parker, as a substitute at Bury.

As manager Alan Curbishley acknowledges, both would have been given more opportunities this season had Charlton not won through the epic Wembley play-off final against Sunderland last May to earn an unlikely place in the Premiership. "If we hadn't gone up, I wouldn't have bought Neil Redfearn and Chris Powell, so there'd have been more openings," he said. "But Scott's come in last week and done very well. He needs to improve on his defensive responsibilities, and he can finish a bit better, given the positions he gets into. Apart from that, he's very comfortable, very tidy, a good passer, very fit and has a good football brain. We feel he's got a great chance and I think he feels he should be playing a bit more."

The chance will undoubtedly come, if not in this weekend's critical relegation set-to at Southampton, then before long. And he will have done his homework.