Football: Parkes holds key to pride

The eternal caretaker is looking after life at Blackburn again as the troubled club seek a new figurehead
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AS THE cab driver manoeuvres his vehicle through the demolition site which used to be a mental hospital, he shudders. "The last time I came here it was night and the doors were banging on their hinges in the wind. I didn't feel like hanging around, I can tell you." Welcome to Brockhall Village, location of Blackburn Rovers' training ground. Today, shrouded in mist, it is not much more prepossessing. You almost expect to see the spectres of former Rovers' managers bellowing instructions in vain to the players.

Tony Parkes, like the old retainer in a Dracula movie - you're quite disappointed when he doesn't motion you with spindly fingers and croak "the master will see you now" - has counted them in. And counted them out. Some carried out drained of blood, a few prospering like Jim Smith and Howard Kendall. Thirteen in 28 years since he arrived as a midfielder from Buxton and Eddie Quigley was manager, he calculates.

The Sheffield-born Parkes, who started off as a wall and floor tiler, has now, at 49, become football's eternal caretaker. He neither demands nor expects any more. Indeed, the joke is around these excellent training facilities that he is the caretaker. Always the last man out. "I've locked a few doors in my time," he says. "Probably the only thing I haven't done here is mop the floors."

Ah, loyalty. What a lost virtue that is, you suggest. He gives a knowing smile. "Sometimes loyalty means not having an option to move."

Last Sunday was the fourth occasion on which he had received the call, asking him to sweep up the debris after another departed manager, Roy Hodgson. Previously, there had been Bobby Saxton in 1986, Don Mackay in 1991 and Ray Harford in 1996. This time he didn't just jump when the owner Jack Walker beckoned him. "I had to think about this one. But I thought I'd rather take it over than somebody else do it and have to work with them," he explains. "The way I see it, nobody's going to blame me if somebody comes in after, say, three games and we've lost them all. We're bottom of the league anyhow. In my position, I can only win. If I win two or three, they'll be saying `Bloody hell, what a sensation. I'll be on the news, on Match of the Day'. It can only do my credibility good."

However, he adds: "My own pride demands that I don't want to hand over to someone else having lost every game. I expect to go to Anfield on Sunday and get a result. I expect to go to Leicester on Wednesday and progress to the semi-finals of the Worthington Cup."

A total of 15 wins, 15 draws, and nine defeats in those three elevations to manager indicates that this apparent Merlin of the Blackburn boot-room may be more than merely a man to summon in a crisis. Never mind the 20 "genuine applications" from individuals who have applied and names such as Roy Evans (available, but did not display notable success at Liverpool), Colin Hendry (the fans' choice, but apparently happily domiciled in Scotland - and lacking experience), Howard Wilkinson and Graeme Souness who have been mentioned in dispatches.

Parkes, probably the only Premiership manager who introduces himself to you, begs to differ. "I don't think it would be fair to expect the job permanently. Last time when I took over, we had four points from 10 games and were possible in a worse position (he modestly omits the fact that he guided them away from relegation). It was supposed to be short term, but lasted 28 games because the club was let down. After 18 games it had gone very well, but the last ten were quite difficult. It was going over the edge."

He adds: "There should be no way in the world I should be able to get any results from the same set players as Roy Hodgson had. He is a top coach, is well respected and a contender for the England job. How can I be successful where he can't? Yet, it's amazing how a caretaker manager can have short-term success. Of course, I will change one or two things. I might bring different players in, change the formation slightly. Otherwise there's no point in me being here. If it was the same as before, Roy might as well have stayed."

We are talking in the manager's office, now stripped bare of Hodgson's library of literature. Here, only weeks ago, we had sat and spoken about many subjects including Hodgson's views on the England coaching position.

Parkes is genuinely saddened by Hodgson's departure. "He said his goodbyes here on Wednesday, and he's coping with it, but finding it very hard. Roy is a very caring and proud man. A result could hurt him for three, four, five days, so you can imagine how much this will affect him. But Roy's going away on holiday to think about his future and he won't be rushing into the first job that comes along."

Hodgson's successor is likely be a big name, such as a Dalglish - "a figurehead and a great motivator, although Kenny would be the first to admit he doesn't do much coaching" - to attract quality players. As Parkes agrees, there are clubs in vogue and there are those with an image barrier - for all Walker's millions. "We are a town team, and we're bottom of the league," he says. "If you're after star players, how do you entice them to come to Blackburn Rovers? If three or four clubs are after a player, why should he come to Blackburn in preference to Chelsea, Arsenal or Newcastle?"

That is typical of Parkes' candour, a quality that is not always appreciated by directors in a "permanent" appointee. Thus, you wouldn't hear many of his managerial counterparts uttering: "Nine points from 14 games is quite a severe situation to be in. It looks as though we'll be in and around the bottom places for a long time and talk about getting into Europe is just a pipe dream. For the moment, getting out of the relegation three would be good enough for me."

On his past record, that would be a modest achievement for a man who should be renamed "Polyfilla" Parkes - all-purpose and ideal for filling in the cracks.

EARLIER LIVES OF THE CARETAKER

1986-87 P 4 W 2 D 2 L 0 Parkes took over from Bobby Saxton at Christmas and consolidated their position in the old Second Division by the time Don Mackay arrived in February.

1991-92 P 8 W 5 D 2 L 1 It was Mackay's turn to go as benefactor Jack Walker sought a big name. Parkes began with the side in 21st position, guided them to initial victory over Derby and selected his last side at Plymouth on 12 October. They won 5-2, Blackburn were then eighth and all was neatly set up for Kenny Dalglish and Ray Harford to take Rovers to sixth and promotion via the play-offs.

1996-97 P 28 W 9 D 11 L 8 When Harford, who had taken over from Dalglish, was sacked Rovers were in deep trouble. In last position and without a win, by early November Parkes had masterminded a 3-0 victory against Liverpool. Although they won only once more after the middle of March they were by then in a safe position, consistently hard to beat, and managed to finish 13th.

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