Football: Parkes may prove a master of timing

Steve Tongue discovers that the caretaker is ready to call the shots
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The Independent Online
OF ALL those well-meaning folk offering advice to Tony Parkes on whether he should turn his traditional caretaker's role at Blackburn Rovers into something more permanent, few were better qualified than Ray Harford.

In moving up four years ago from being Parkes's coaching colleague at Ewood Park to becoming his boss, Harford was taking the difficult step from coach to manager at his fourth successive club - almost certainly a record of some sort. Successful at Fulham, Luton and Wimbledon, he found Blackburn a more demanding challenge by far after Kenny Dalglish's unexpected decision to give up control of the 1995 championship-winning team for a more nebulous role.

When Harford met Parkes at a social function a fortnight ago, however, his recommendation was firm and was quickly acted upon: "I said to him that he should take the job, because there wouldn't be a better time. Other times when he was caretaker, it was always a bit awkward for one reason or another. Now he's said he'll have a go and to do it until the end of the season is probably a good idea."

As a Rovers player for 11 years, converted from striker to midfielder after signing from Buxton in 1970, Parkes has long been regarded as part of the family, his Yorkshire origins generously forgiven as an unfortunate act of birth over which he had no control. A coach since 1981, he served the first of his five periods as stand-in when Bobby Saxton was sacked halfway through the 1986-87 season, and was in situ again when Jack Walker arrived five years later and wanted a bigger name as manager than the quiet Scot Don Mackay.

Dalglish, the sensational choice for a club in danger of relegation to the lower divisions, turned equally unexpectedly to Harford, for his coaching ability and knowledge of the First Division, while sensibly keeping the trusted and trusty Parkes in place. "Tony was a nice guy who'd been a player there and was very much involved in the town, almost a Blackburn lad by association even though he was born in Yorkshire," Harford recalled. "The first match we beat Plymouth five-something and it took off from there."

Took off almost too quickly, Harford now believes, as the club shot from the depths of the division to win a Wembley play-off at the end of that first season, then finish fourth, second and first in successive Premiership campaigns: "The problem at Blackburn was that the expectations were too great and we actually fed that by winning the League, probably too early and unexpectedly. We had the biggest trouble with new supporters, people who'd just joined the bandwagon: the ones who'd been there a long time were fine and were very, very grateful for what we'd achieved, but the others were the problem."

Within 18 months of the championship, Alan Shearer had been sold, the team were bottom of the Premiership and Harford decided it was "time for someone else to have a go". Send for Parkes, to sit in the manager's chair for more than half the season and inspire the players to a respectable 13th place. It was that period above all that convinced him he could do the job, though he was happy to step down as Roy Hodgson and then Brian Kidd went through their doomed attempts to live up to the great expectations of a modestly populated Lancashire town.

The downward revision of those expectations is the main reason why Harford believes the time is right for his former assistant. "They don't expect so much now. I spoke to the chairman a couple of weeks ago and he was talking about steadying things this year and maybe planning a promotion chase next year; if they'd said that two or three years ago, people would have laughed."

What of the difficulties in changing from being the players' friend on the training ground to the disciplinarian running a different sort of shooting match, involved in all sorts of other areas? "As a coach you can be the good guy, though it doesn't always work that way round. With Kenny, he was the good guy, keeping them happy and having a laugh and joke and I was the bad man.

"There's the whole business of dealing with the media as well, though the biggest thing, I think, is picking the team. When you're a coach you just plan the week, and let the manager pick the team on a Friday. What Tony'll find is that if you're not careful, you can think too deeply. You're looking for clues all the time, whereas Kenny used to say that the team can sometimes pick itself. Either way you need the players to respect you, which is what Tony has.

"In the end, you need a little bit of luck. If you lose two games at any club now, at whatever level, you're under pressure. Tony's had eight games undefeated and given himself a good chance. Now it's a question of what happens when they have a couple of wobbles. But I think he's done the right thing."

In Harold Pinter's The Caretaker, the eponymous central character, initially taken in and welcomed, is eventually turned on and evicted. But then he wasn't doing the job for the fifth time. In Tony Parkes's case, there might just be a happier ending.

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