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Hero of middle classes hero

Ian Ridley talks to Garry Parker, the centre point of Leicester's challenge
ONE of the elements that gives football its broad-church appeal comes in its contrasts: of resources, of playing styles, of characters. Today's Coca-Cola Cup final at Wembley embodies this. In the red half, the exotic, cosmopolitan talents of Middlesbrough while in the blue, the simple, largely British virtues of Leicester City.

Contrast, too, the two play-makers: the youthful, energetic Juninho, gliding and dribbling from his position just behind two strikers with a change of pace that fools defenders who imagine they have timed the tackle well, against Garry Parker, veteran and almost leisurely purveyor of the perceptive pass from the centre of the field. Different men, same aim of picking holes in any back line.

Parker is one of the old school who has old schoolboys like this correspondent purring. In the high-tech, high-paced Premiership with its rigorous diets and fitness coaching, he has sometimes seemed like a throwback to the times when midfield players put their foot on the ball and sprayed it around. "I have never been one to run the length of the pitch," he admits. "I try to let the ball do the work for me."

Lack of time and space seems to preclude his type more and more, but the way he has prospered in the Premiership at 31, bringing experience and poise to a well-balanced team, has shown that there should always be a place for his like. The managers who have signed him - David Pleat, Brian Horton, Brian Clough, Ron Atkinson and now Martin O'Neill - can fairly be said to know a thing or two about spotting players.

But for half a yard of pace, Parker might well have improved on his England Under 21 and one full England squad place, under Graham Taylor, against Poland. "It is a regret, but I am not going to let it bother me. I have had a good life out of football," he says. "People say its the pace, but international football is slower. Sometimes the 100 miles an hour ones are the players who get noticed and some can't see the passer. But they will always stand out, like David Beckham."

And, at club level, Parker. With little pace to lose, he has the capacity to continue for a while yet. Cuteness and canniness remain prized commodities, as O'Neill will undoubtedly consider when negotiating a new contract - Parker's current one ends in the summer.

Professionals often tell you that it takes more than pure talent to succeed, that determination and perseverance are equally important. The parks are full of those with the former who lack the latter. Parker's career illustrates the importance of drive and self-belief.

His father Derek, who had wanted young Garry to be a pro, died when he was seven and older brother Roger took him under his wing, "taking me to the park, right foot, left foot, training, training, training." As a youth at Queen's Park Rangers under George Graham, Parker hardly played and took the chance to learn his trade with David Pleat at Luton.

Only rarely did he appear in a splendid Luton midfield of the mid-1980s so he took the chance to join one of them, Brian Horton, when he went into management, even though it meant a step into the Second Division with Hull. Parker hoped to be noticed and Brian Clough soon did. "A one- off, everything was off the cuff," Parker recalls.

"Sometimes at Nottingham Forest we would walk to the training ground, finish the warm-up and just be starting a five-a-side when Mr Clough would arrive with his dog. Suddenly he'd say 'Stop. That's it. In you go. Save your legs for Saturday.' Unbelievable. I have never come across it before or since.

"Then there were his team talks. He would put a towel on the dressing- room floor with a ball on it and say 'Right. This is your friend. Talk to it, keep it, pass it to your other friends'. He didn't rule by fear exactly but you always knew he was the man. I won two League Cups with him, played in an FA Cup final and was always high up in the league, so it must have been right somewhere, mustn't it?"

Parker's part in that FA Cup final, against Tottenham, may be remembered for his chest getting in the way of Paul Gascoigne's studs. It remains his only defeat at Wembley. By the time Aston Villa won the Coca-Cola final of 1994, he had been dropped, a victim of Ron Atkinson's desire for more power in midfield.

"I thought last year with Leicester in the play-offs would be my last visit," he says, and he nearly didn't make that. It was thought he might have been shipped out after a dressing-room altercation involving a cup of tea and the manager's suit - "everyone has a fall-out with the manager at some stage".

The two made up to good effect, Parker scoring the winning goal at Stoke in the semi-final then the equalising penalty against Crystal Palace at Wembley, where he was man of the match. Leicester almost owe him this year's appearance, too. Twice he cleared off the line in the Selhurst Park semi-final against Wimbledon. "For the second, Mick Harford punched the ball and I was going to leave it. I didn't hear a whistle, though, and it took a long time to bounce up so I thought I had better head it out to make sure."

The match was conducted amid difficult personal circumstances as his wife Petra had just given birth to their daughter Carmen Rae 17 weeks prematurely at a weight of only 1lb 6oz. Mother and baby are now growing stronger. Resilience seems to run through the Parkers.

Leicester, too, he believes. "We work as a team, for each other. That's the major factor. We are a good mix. If somebody is struggling at left- back, a midfield player will try and get behind him to help. If Steve Claridge and Emile Heskey need support up front, we get up and do it. That's the sign of a good team.

"We complement each other. We have players who can shut opponents down and get the ball - and I try, I can tackle now and then - players who can run and head." And at least one to remind us that the English can still pass the ball, that the Brazilians don't have to have all best tunes.