It was just like the old days for Scott Parker on Thursday night. Sitting warming the bench for 80 minutes of Newcastle United's 2-1 Uefa Cup first-round victory against Levadia Tallinn was a reminder for the midfield dynamo of the bleak time stuck on the sidelines at Chelsea that was such a pain in the Nicky Butt.
"Yeah, it was a bit like the old days," the Newcastle captain mused. "Bit more comfortable, these benches."
There was another difference. The reason Parker was parked behind Glenn Roeder until the final 10 minutes of a second-leg tie his team were never in danger of losing was to save him for bigger challenges ahead: for Old Trafford this afternoon, where Newcastle will be seeking to end 34 years of hurt against Manchester United, and for Old Trafford next Saturday, where two and a half years of hurt on the England front seem likely to come to an end for the in-form Londoner.
Discarded by Sven Goran Eriksson after walk-on roles against Denmark at Old Trafford in November 2003 and Sweden in Gothenburg in March 2004, Parker has been brought in from the cold by Steve McClaren as the obvious stand-in for Owen Hargreaves (below) in the midfield holding role in the Euro 2008 qualifier against Macedonia. His inspired early-season play as Newcastle's new team leader - having taken the captain's armband from Alan Shearer - has greatly impressed England's newish head coach.
Not that Captain Scott was banking on being given an international expedition, after spending so long in the wilderness. "Of course it hurt when I wasn't in squads," he reflected. "I think there would be something wrong with me if it didn't. But it got to the stage where the only thing I could think about was playing well for Newcastle. That was all I could do.
"Sure, I'd be happy to play in the holding role for England. Owen Hargreaves has done really well in it, but I think we've got many a player who can fill it. We'll just see what happens. Just getting in the squad is a massive improvement for me from how it's been going."
It has been going particularly well for Parker in the Premiership lately, since Roeder gave him the captaincy and asked him to play more adventurously from central midfield. "Glenn wants me to get forward as much as I can," he said. "It's part of my natural game. I used to get forward a lot at Charlton but when I went to Chelsea I was asked to do the Makelele role."
When Parker was asked to play at Chelsea, that is. Signed from Charlton for £10m by Claudio Ranieri in January 2004, he started just one Premiership match under Jose Mourinho in the 2004-05 season - after which he moved to Newcastle for £6.5m. "I don't feel like I failed at Chelsea," Parker insisted. "It was just a lack of opportunity. When I did get an opportunity I felt I adapted myself well enough. But a new manager comes in and all of a sudden someone doesn't fancy you and it's difficult.
"It turned into a situation where I was 24 and I needed to play football. I was not guaranteed that at Chelsea. It was in my best interests to move on."
Moving to Newcastle was a smart step for the Lambeth-born Parker. It gave him the kind of platform he enjoyed in his seven years with Charlton and when his youthful ball-juggling skills famously featured in a McDonald's television advert promoting the 1994 World Cup.
The remarkable thing is that the one-time "keepie-uppie kid" has been able to maintain such prolific all-action form while still recovering from the debilitating effects of glandular fever, which afflicted him towards the end of last season (and which, with the prospect of two games for England on the horizon, prompted Roeder to restrict his involvement against Tallinn).
"It does make a run of games quite gruelling," Parker confided. "I think once you've had glandular fever you clear it, but your system is still down a bit. I'm still getting back to where I was before I had it. It'll take its time.
"I started feeling it probably three months before I actually stopped playing. I never really thought of it as massive. I just thought I was having an off-day, but it went on like that. Then I went and had tests and realised that I had glandular fever. It was pretty zapping really."
Much the same can be said of Newcastle's record against Manchester United away from St James' Park. They have won FA Cup semi-finals at Old Trafford in relatively recent times - against Sheffield United in 1998 and against Tottenham in 1999 - but their last victory against Manchester United in Manchester dates back to 12 February, 1972. That 2-0 success, courtesy of John Tudor and Stewart Barrowclough, came the week after the Magpies had their wings painfully clipped in the FA Cup at Hereford.
"My record at Old Trafford's not that great either," Parker confessed. "I don't think I've ever won there. I think I got a draw there once with Chelsea, but that's about it. It's a tough place to go, and the way they're playing at the moment it's going to be even more difficult.
"They made a good signing in the summer in Michael Carrick, and Paul Scholes coming back is like another new signing for them. It's going to be very difficult for us but we'll go there and give it our all and see where it gets us."
In their last seven visits to Old Trafford, Newcastle have got just the one point out of a possible 21. Their patchy form of late hardly inspires confidence, though at least the red card Titus Bramble received against Everton last Sunday has removed one potential self-inflicted thorn from their side.
Two months into the season, the prospect of overdue silverware is looking as remote as ever for the Magpies. Their captain, however, is determinedly keeping the faith. "I came to Newcastle because they're a big club and because I thought I could achieve what I wanted to achieve," Parker said. "There is no hiding the fact that we haven't won a trophy for a long while and we're a long way off. We're not going to kid ourselves. We are a long way off.
"But we are going to do some good things. I think the foundations are here: the stadium, the fan base. They can attract players, which can move things along. And I think we can really go on and push for something."
First, however, comes the push for a win in the Red Devils' cauldron - and for an England starting place.Reuse content