Hands up, who fancied an Englishman to score first in the FA Cup final? Who took the 6-1 available from Ladbroke on Saturday morning? Who, in their right mind fancied Ray Parlour? Parlour and goalscoring do not go together. The Arsenal midfielder brings graft and hard running to the game, in themselves commendable qualities, but shooting is not his strong point. When he shapes up for a strike people positioned behind the target begin to duck. They regret not taking out insurance, coming equipped with a headguard. Parents warn their children. If you see Parlour about to shoot get under the seat. Barn doors are safe from him.
On the morning of the game, in the garden of a friend's house in Penarth I pointed to a spot about 15 yards away. "If Parlour had the ball there he wouldn't be guaranteed to hit us," I said with the air of a well-practiced cynic. "The ball would end up on the roof or in the garden three doors down. Anybody who can see Parlour scoring the first goal should be taken into protective custody."
You could look elsewhere among the home-grown but not with any great confidence. Frank Lampard, Ashley Cole, Graham Le Saux (a much better bet to get the yellow card he collected after only two minutes for a spiteful studs-up lunge at Lauren); Tony Adams and Sol Campbell at free-kicks and corners. But not Parlour. He had scored just once this season in 33 first-team appearances. In rehearsals he looks great but on the day you would not bet on him to convert a tap-in.
At 6-1 it was no sort of bet anyway. Freddie Ljungberg was on fire, Thierry Henry and Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink had been scoring goals for fun; Eidur Gudjohnsen, Dennis Bergkamp, Sylvain Wiltord. No doubt about it. Forget the Englishmen.
When Parlour took a pass from Wiltord in the 70th minute this remained my conviction. Lacking the guile to go on and penetrate Chelsea's penalty area, he did not seem to be going anywhere. Supporters didn't shout "shoot" because Parlour's record suggested it would be a waste of breath. Give it to Henry, Bergkamp, give it to anybody they must have thought. I do not know quite why, but my mind went back to Bobby Charlton bearing down on Mexico's goal in the 1966 World Cup finals. Exhorted to shoot, Charlton did what was expected of him finding the net with a tremendous shot from 35 yards.
You could sense that something different was expected of Parlour. For God's sake don't shoot, pass it. Instead, he checked stride and ripped the ball into the roof of Chelsea's net, the power too much for Carlo Cudicini.
Not many of you will remember an old-time radio comedian Al Read who had a routine into which Parlour's moment of glory would have perfectly fitted. Read, in the role of footballer supporter, heaped clichéd abuse on an imaginary player. "Brainless, couldn't trap a bag of cement, they should call him 'Lino' because he can't get off the floor." The tirade went on and on until suddenly the victim scores. "What a player," Read would then cry, "brilliant, always knew it."
Even before Saturday, supporters of Arsenal had kinder thoughts about Parlour. His virtues outweighed his shortcomings. Reliable, a battler, a loyal servant. Now a goal to remember.
Chelsea, their cause undermined by injuries that put a doubt against the appearance of Hasselbaink, Le Saux and Celestine Babayaro (besides denying them the services of Mikael Forssell) never looked likely to recover from the setback of Parlour's goal. Ljungberg's marvellous strike 10 minutes from time finished them.
Goalkeepers should picket the premises of ball manufacturers. They should carry placards saying, "Be fair to us." What chance do they have when the ball swerves every which way? As though he had been practicing with the many fine golfers Sweden produces, Ljungberg set his shot off right and drew it back into the top far corner of Cudicini's net. Chelsea's agile goalkeeper could not be faulted. His positioning was spot on, his leap perfectly judged but still he was beaten. Understandably, Cudicini thumped the ground in frustration. He must have felt like putting a knife in the ball, throttling the technicians.
Now, it seems, my failure to identify hidden qualities in Parlour's game is destined to become a matter of record. "I see, couldn't hit this house from 15 yards," my friend said after the match. He thinks that may become his sporting quote of the year.Reuse content