Scott Parker, his voice quavering, yesterday defended his decision to force Charlton Athletic into selling him to Chelsea, a deal that was completed yesterday morning.
When he signed a new five-year contract in the summer, Charlton, said Parker, had "promised" him he could move if one of the "top three" [Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester United] came in for him. He added he had the "utmost respect" for everyone at Charlton but "this was one of those opportunities which come along in life and you can't pass up". It was, he said, a chance to better himself as a player and a person. Charlton, he insisted, had been amply rewarded for their investment and faith in him, both in his past performances on the pitch and with the £10m fee. When he next appears at The Valley he hoped he would "get a clap". It was, he felt, what he "deserved".
Acquaintance will not immediately be renewed. Chelsea have already visited The Valley this season and the deal expressly ruled Parker out of the Stamford Bridge return next week. When the 23-year-old midfielder does next appear at The Valley it may be optimistic to expect a reception such as that accorded Rio Ferdinand on his return to Upton Park but nor should Parker encounter the naked hostility with which Tottenham fans greeted Sol Campbell.
That is partly because Charlton have been well remunerated, partly because some fans will recognise that the opportunity was too good for Parker to turn down. Such recognition will be combined with sadness, for fans of Charlton and anyone else who wishes for a competitive Premiership. The inevitable question is who's next? Which cherry will Manchester United, Chelsea or Arsenal next pluck from the Premiership's cannon-fodder, further unbalancing an already unequal contest? For Parker's move follows that of Louis Saha, who also left a flourishing Premiership club, in his case Fulham, for one of the big three (Manchester United) despite being under contract and against the express wishes of his manager.
Back in the summer, Damien Duff and Wayne Bridge made similar moves. Previously Ferdinand, Frank Lampard, Francis Jeffers and, slightly different as he was out of contract, Campbell, had also been lured to the big three.
Was it not ever thus? At least since the abolition of the minimum wage and the granting of freedom of contract? Are Parker and Saha, Duff and Bridge, not merely their respective clubs' modern equivalents of Rob Lee and Ray Houghton, Mike England and Alan Shearer? Not quite. Those players usually left clubs which were struggling, either on the pitch or on the balance sheet, and joined, respectively, Newcastle United, Oxford United, Tottenham and Blackburn Rovers. Parker and Saha have walked out on clubs which are prospering in the top flight and which, in the past, could have been expected to repel unwanted advances.
Not any more. In the past Parker had rejected overtures from Spurs, just as Paul Robinson turned down Aston Villa this season and Tomas Radzinski this week spurned Blackburn. They were sideways moves but when the big boys come calling heads are turned. The English game is becoming like the Dutch one where the best players all gravitate to Ajax, Feyenoord or PSV Eindhoven.
"Sometimes in life opportunities to better yourself come along come and you can't refuse them," Parker said. "I've been at Charlton for four years. Every year I have progressed. I didn't know how much better I could become at Charlton, how much more I could give. Everyone is saying I won't play so often but I will be training with world-class players every day. That can help me be a better person and a better player."
Parker broke into the England side this season, as a Charlton player, as did Paul Konchesky last season and Chris Powell previously. Sven Goran Eriksson capped Bridge while he was still at Southampton. The England manager has also selected Matthew Upson, of Birmingham, and called up Fulham's Sean Davis and Leicester's Ian Walker. He does watch 'unfashionable' teams. But Parker added: "I think I stand a better chance with Chelsea of playing for England. I am just being honest."
He is, too. The crucial factor is the Champions' League. Eriksson likes his internationals to be playing in it. The days when a footballer could sustain an international career with a mid-ranking club, as Trevor Brooking did at West Ham, are gone. A player may be very happy at such a club but if he is to remain there he must be prepared to stand aside when the caps and medals are handed out, as Matt Le Tissier found out.
James Beattie, capped by Eriksson as a Southampton player, but far from being a regular, knows the form. He has been asked about a move so often he now speaks warily on the subject. He was, though, prepared to state the case for Parker and Saha. "There's nothing wrong with people being ambitious and if those ambitions take them on to one of those [three] clubs that's OK." But Beattie added: "If it was me I probably wouldn't have gone to the papers like Saha, you might feel like that but there's some things you don't say. Still, he's got his move."
Be sure that Beattie has thought about it. Speaking again of Saha, he highlighted the way he would fit into Manchester United's way of playing, how everyone Alex Ferguson bought filled a pre-determined role. Beattie, a centre-forward of the old type, knows there is no place for him at Old Trafford. Nor, he will have figured, at Arsenal where mobility and pace are the attacking fundamentals. Chelsea, perhaps, for Claudio Ranieri likes the power and spirit of English players. More probable is Newcastle, where Shearer cannot go on for ever.
Newcastle? Yes, they have the potential to make it a "big four". The other such club, noted Gordon Strachan, is Liverpool. "Those two should be able to get closer but the rest of us can forget it," Southampton's manager said. "Is it discouraging? Not really. It's not really changed. It has been like this forever. Twenty years ago when Southampton came second there wasn't that big a gulf with the money, and that was just one season. If you take the last 100 years it always seems to be the same clubs at the top of the league."
That is not strictly true. In the 25 years before the Premiership's formation Manchester United failed to win the championship but among those who did were Manchester City, Derby County, Nottingham Forest, Aston Villa, Everton and Leeds United. They succeeded because they could hang on to players like Colin Bell, Roy McFarland, John Robertson, Dennis Mortimer, Kevin Ratcliffe and Billy Bremner. Now, just as a manager like Alan Curbishley finds his painstaking team-building is bearing fruit, one of the cornerstones is ripped away. "I can understand Alan is disappointed," said Parker. "He's built a good squad there and they are doing really well, fourth in the league and probably the last thing he wanted was the sale of me."
Curbishley had specifically denied telling Parker he could move if a "top three club" came in. Parker, when pressed, said the promise had been given by Richard Murray, the chairman. He added: "I hope the fans realise why I made my decision. They'll be disappointed and it all looks so bad on me, but I hope they look back on what I brought to Charlton rather than all the negative stuff.
"I've been at the club for 12 years. There's been many times when I could have gone. Charlton have given me my chance but I've become the player I am through my hard work, through the work I have done every day in training, staying out extra, and every time I run out there giving it everything. I feel I deserve a clap when I go back. Charlton are not one man. Scott Parker goes from Charlton but Charlton live on. It's not the end of Charlton Athletic."
It is, though, the end of any dreams, unrealistic they may have been, that the club could mix it with the big boys. "If it wasn't a top three club I'd still be playing for Charlton," added Parker by way of mitigation. No doubt Wayne Rooney, Alan Smith and, perhaps, Beattie will one day say much the same.