Once he was the 13-year-old sprite filmed for a McDonald's advertisement playing keepy-uppy in the back garden, and at 16 he had a Football League appearance to his name with Charlton Athletic. Now, on the opposite bank of the Thames, a short hop made via diversions to Chelsea and Newcastle, Scott Parker is suddenly football's version of a senior citizen, all armband, responsibility and half-time address to the troops.
There has been widespread recognition for his talents as a modern midfielder, a workaholic who loves a tackle but can still create and score. If that appreciation is belated in the case of England, West Ham followers have felt it since his arrival four summers ago, and he is set to equal Sir Trevor Brooking's record by being named Hammer of the Year for a third successive season; Premier League Player of the Month for February, he should also be in contention for the season's individual awards from his peers and the media.
Yet, welcome as all that may be, what will matter most by the end of May is whether West Ham have stayed out of the bottom three places.
"The recognition I'm getting personally is brilliant and I take great confidence from that and people writing nice stuff about me," he said before Friday's training session for the FA Cup quarter-final at Stoke today. "But if I'm driving home after that last game of the season and we've been relegated, it's going to be probably my worst season. That's the way it is. When you get relegated, everything changes. Families, whether I have to move, the kids have to move. It affects everyone, whether it be the players or staff. There's the impact personally of me being involved in a relegated team, the impact on my family and on everyone. That would be massively disappointing."
The fun days of keepy-uppy are long gone and probably were even when Parker joined the crème de la crème of his generation in the former Football Association National School at Lilleshall, where Michael Owen and Wes Brown were contemporaries. "When you're a young lad, playing and scoring is the be-all and end-all, then you get to professional football and the key thing is three points. If you're driving home and you haven't got three points it's the end of the world, it means nothing. Football is such a results-drivengame, especially where we are at the moment, that the days of enjoying it as such are very few and far between. Unless you're winning on a Saturday there's not much enjoyment really. You should have my wife sitting here, she'd explain exactly what it's like."
Mrs Parker and her three sons must have had a difficult couple of years. Last season's 35 points were the lowestin West Ham's history, though they survived because Burnley, Hull and Portsmouth were even worse off. This season a total of 31 with nine games left is still insufficient to keep them out of the bottom three after the long slog that followed defeats in the firstfour matches (a run ended by a gritty draw at Stoke, where Parker scored their goal).
"The one ambition this season when we started out was to stay in the Premier League but I never thought we'd be in this position, to be honest. I was expecting a lot higher, along with everyone else at the club. You can blame injuries or bad luck but the bottom lineis we have underperformed. That's the reason we are where we are. For many reasons I can't exactly put my finger on why things have not gone well for us. We have been a bit unlucky but the same happened last year, we were in a similar position so there's obviously something that's been missing. Hopefully now we're looking a little bit stronger, we've got some key players back and maybe we can just get ourselves out of it, but it will be difficult."
Apart from the aberration of a 5-0 defeat at Newcastle, results since Christmas have been much better, as a run of 20 goals in the past seven League and Cup games illustrates. The most remarkable of those matches was a critical one at the Hawthorns, when fellow relegation candidates West Bromwich Albion strode in at half-time with a three-goal lead. What happened next has been alluded to by Carlton Cole, famously stating that it brought a tear to his eye, but not until now by Parker, who insists that in self-confessed"effing and blinding" in the dressing-room he was venting his own frustration as much as attempting to convince the players that they could still achieve the 3-3 draw that resulted.
"It was disastrous, wasn't it? We were going to West Brom away, we're bottom of the League along with them. And we're 3-0 down after 20 minutes. That physically can't happen. But it was possible for one reason: we didn't turn up. And that's what I was trying to say. It was along the lines of 'We're West Ham and it's an absolute must-win game for us, we're 3-0 down after 20 minutes, we give ourselves no chance whatsoever'. It was pure frustration."
He insists he has always been prepared to have his say, even among the internationals at Chelsea, where he admits he might have stayed a season longer rather than giving up the fight to win a regular place under Jose Mourinho and heading to the North-east. The return to London could have been temporary, with Manchester City coveting him, but he elected to stay and was rewarded – if embarrassed – when the new co-owner David Sullivan said he was the only player West Ham would not consider selling. It was well meant, but not the sort of remark that goes down well in the dressing room and is the only topic in a long conversation that Parker wishes to avoid.
On every other subject he is enthusiastic and loquacious, including the strange England career that has brought him four caps, all with different clubs, over a period of eight seasons. After an impressive second half as a substitute last time out, the sequence will surely be broken when Fabio Capello names his squad next weekend for the European Championship qualifier in Wales – just Parker's sort of match.
"It has been a bit strange for me at international level," he says. "There are times when the squads are picked, I'm not in it and it's disappointing. I got 45 minutes, which I was pleased with. It was a start for me. Hopefully I can prove to him that he can give me a chance."
Before that, there is a Cup tie to be won against a Stoke team who Parker expects to be more troublesome than the one beaten 3-0 at Upton Park last weekend. "It's always a difficult place to go. They bring different problems. Rory Delap's throw-in is something you will never come across. When he retires I don't think you will see someone who can throw the ball like that ever again. It's incredible how flat he can get it, how fast he can get it. They put you under pressure. They have a lot of big players, they are a direct team and play to their strengths. But they also have players that can play. They can mix it up. When you run out against Stoke and the ref blows his whistle, you know exactly what you are up against."
Then comes a derby away to Tottenham, the team he supported as a boy back in the keepy-uppy days and had always seemed destined to join. It has never worked out, so how does he feel, caught up in another relegation struggle and watching Spurs enter the last eight of the Champions' League?
"As a kid you're always thinking, 'I would like that to be me'. I understand that but I am more than happy where I am. I enjoy playing my football here, I enjoy the club, I enjoy the people I'm around. Obviously I don't enjoy where we are in the League at the moment. But I am very hopeful we can get ourselves out of the position we're in."
Life and times
Born on 13 October 1980 in Lambeth, south London. Aged 13, he appeared in a TV advert for McDonald’s for the 1994 World Cup. Made his Charlton debut in 1997 and became a midfield linchpin.
Chelsea paid £10 million for his services in 2004 but it was an acrimonious transfer and the then Addicks manager Alan Curbishley criticised Parker’s attitude. Had an unhappy time at the Bridge, playing just 15 games and breaking a metatarsal.
Moved to Newcastle for £6.5m but was diagnosed with glandular fever. Led the Toon to Intertoto Cup victory in 2006 before joining West Ham for £7m.
Became the first player since Julian Dicks to be named Hammer of the Year two seasons running. Has represented England at every level from Under-15s to the senior team.
Was in Fabio Capello’s 30-man preliminary squad for the World Cup but did not make final cut. Last month he came on as a substitute in Denmark to become the first player to win his first four caps with four clubs: Charlton, Chelsea, Newcastle and West Ham.
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