Crowning of the Valley king

Euro 2004: Scott Parker
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The Independent was looking for new faces to watch in 1999, and the pitch to the sports editor went along the lines of: "There's a young lad called Scott Parker at Charlton, just made his full debut. Very promising. He did those adverts for McDonald's a few years ago, ball-juggling in the garden." A story of 800 words duly appeared with the subheading: "Art imitates life as a schoolboy steps up from a television commercial to a career in professional football."

Five years on, a first taste of full inter-national football - as an England substitute against Denmark last month - has proved more delectable than anything to be found in a fast-food outlet, and whetted Parker's appetite. The problem, he acknowledges, about travelling to Portugal next summer as squad member rather than holidaymaker is the severity of competition for places in Sven Goran Eriksson's midfield. "It's every boy's dream, isn't it, to run out and play for your country," he says. "I've played for England at every level now and it was brilliant at Old Trafford, fantastic. But that was the easy part. The hardest part is to cement a place; it's not the easiest position to fight for.

"I know I've got to do what I've been doing so far and keep on working hard, and if I do I may have a chance. We know that injuries arise at the end of a season and players have knocks and can't make championships, so maybe I'll get a chance."

The other notable point about England's midfield is the sort of clubs the current crop represent: from Real Madrid and Bayern Munich to Manchester United, Chelsea, Liverpool and Newcastle. It was a huge boost to Charlton Athletic when Paul Konchesky (who played) and Parker (who didn't) were selected last February for the ill-fated game against Australia, confirming that being attached to one of the less fashionable clubs was not an impediment to international recognition.

That one call-up might even have swayed Parker into signing a new contract at The Valley last summer, and staying put when Chelsea and others came calling. "There were two clubs which were an option and Chelsea was very close," he admitted. "But I'd just signed a contract here because I felt at this moment in time this was the best place for me to be playing my football. We've got ambition and Mr Eriksson has shown he's willing to pick me playing at Charlton."

That said, it is clearly important to him and to Alan Curbishley, the club's manager, that Charlton continue moving onwards and upwards: "We've been in the Premiership three or four years now and I just feel we've got to progress a bit more. We can't keep getting to 40 points and knowing we're safe. We look on ourselves now as similar to Southampton and Blackburn, who got into Europe last season."

From being a clever teenaged ball-player not always conscious of defensive responsibilities, Parker has sharpened his game, and especially his tackling, to emerge as a fully-fledged 23-year-old all-rounder who, Ron Atkinson recently suggested on ITV's The Premiership, could become "one of the great midfield players". The crucial change occurred three years ago, when he was farmed out on loan to Norwich City to toughen him up: "I think Alan was looking at it as a weak part of my game and wasn't fully confident I could play a defensive role, track my runners. So I looked on it as a trial and really gave it my all. It was fear of failure, really. When you're a young lad, you see so many who are brilliant players but then don't make it.

"At Lilleshall [where he attended the former National School with Michael Owen and Alan Smith] you're tucked away in your own little world and you don't really see what it's all about until you get back to a club with the older pros."

An early recall from Norwich and an injury to Mark Kinsella, Charlton's captain and holding midfield player, offered a chance to break into the Premiership, and Parker has not looked back. In looking forward, he will continue to review his goals (and try to score more of them, like the two pearlers at Southampton recently in front of Eriksson).

"It's like anyone in a job, you set targets, then review them. I'd like to score more often, and with more experience and confidence I'm starting to let loose in the attacking third a bit more."

Having already received seven yellow cards this season, he will also try to adjust the balance between winning the ball and attracting unwanted attention from referees. "Curbs [Curbishley] has pulled me into the office a couple of times to talk about it. It's hard, because with my game, in my position, there are going to be a couple of mistimed tackles. If you get booked early on, you're on a knife-edge for the rest of the game. The main thing is to cut out any silly ones for dissent or kicking the ball away."

What still shines through after five years in the often cynical world of professional football is the enthusiasm for the game that has clearly been with him since he first linked up with Charlton at the age of eight (despite being a Tottenham supporter who idolised Paul Gascoigne).

Assessing the past year, he says: "It's been great. There was the nomination as one of the PFA Young Players of the Year, then the Player of the Year award from the fans here, and just getting a full season under my belt was brilliant.

"I'm pleased with my performances, and everything's going to plan at the moment." Not such a new face, then, but still one to follow in 2004.