Arsenal are a club that truly appreciates the contributions of their former heroes, and Ray Parlour is up there among the most loved players in many Gunners’ fans’ memories. Nicknamed the ‘Romford Pele’ thanks to his Essex home town and silky skills on the pitch, the former midfield playmaker plied his trade through some of Arsenal’s most successful seasons, taking in the work of Arsene Wenger, the magic of Thierry Henry and the lifting of numerous trophies along the way. Football FanCast chatted exclusively to the Highbury idol ahead of the London regional heat to find the ‘People’s Pundit’ – a nationwide search championed by the Carlsberg Fan Squad to give one fan their big break on talkSPORT – and here’s what he had to say…
There’s absolutely no lasting at a club like Arsenal for this long without incredible man-management skills. How does Wenger connect with his players?
His man-management skills were brilliant. You wouldn’t find one player who left that club who’d say, he did it in a horrible way. He was always on the player’s side. He wanted the best for his players and he was always honest with you if you didn’t have a future at the club. Day to day he was brilliant. He could have a good laugh as well, which is very important when you’re not training. He could easily get his point across without really shouting, which was the complete opposite to George Graham. Wenger knew there were some players he could have a go at, and some who he needed to help. I’m sure a lot of the players who grew up with him would say exactly the same as me.
Sir Alex Ferguson suggested in his autobiography that he couldn’t see Wenger with a sense of humour – is there more to him than meets the eye?
Absolutely, he had a great sense of humour. He’s actually a very funny man. He’d always joke in the canteen and training, and he could see the funny side to a lot of things. He might have been slightly more serious on matchdays, and his eight year barren spell may have hardened that humour, but on a day-to-day basis when I was there he had a great sense of humour.
We’ve heard that his training sessions were very intense and based strongly around technique. How did you find them? How did they compare to other managers you played under?
No disrespect to our last managers but his sessions were a lot shorter and sharper with real quality. He’d like to suddenly change things, and change the format of your thinking to try something totally different to what you were doing. Sometimes you can do a session for too long and you can lose quality, but he was always right on his timing and on the clock. There’d be lots of closing down and lots of possession in 8 versus 8 games, in a big square, having to keep the ball, passing. 10 passes might be the goal, and then you’d have to win it back. Everyone looked forward to it. He was very good at preparing us for the weekend. Once you cross that white line on game day you should know your job, you should know what you’re doing as a team, you should know exactly how you’re going to play. You should be mentality prepared- that’s the managers job, and he was excellent at that.
How do you think it will end for Wenger – will he leave on his own terms, or do you think two or three seasons of mediocrity would be enough to see the board act?
I really don’t know the answer to that. The top four this year is vital. I think it will be on good terms. Who knows. One day he might wake up and it could be health problems. It’s all about keeping those standards up. Whether he’ll go to the next level next year with Chelsea and City about will be difficult because the supporters are demanding- but that will all come down to the transfer market. If he can bring in another two or three top quality players, that would get the final piece of the jigsaw, and then he could really challenge.
Talking of bringing in new players, do Arsenal need to invest in a new defensive midfielder, or do you think Francis Coquelin is the answer to that defensive midfield hole?
Coquelin’s been fantastic and he’s a real part of the squad now. I still think you need another player alongside of him though – I always thought Morgan Schneiderlin (of Southampton) would do a great job – he’s good on the ball and in the tackle – he can sit in a back four a little like Gilberto Silva did. Coquelin is certainly part of the future, but it would be good to have another holding player alongside of him for when you’re away in Europe or at a big team.
And on the subject of big signings, what have you made of Mesut Ozil so far?
There’s definitely still more to come, no doubt about that. You can see with Di Maria too who’s slowed down a little that there’s a different sort of mentality and intensity to every Premier League game. In Spain you can play against the bottom side and rest four players, but it doesn’t work like that in England. If you match the lower teams in commitment you can win but if you don’t you can get turned over- I don’t think it works like that in other leagues. Ozil is more of a Rolls Royce- maybe he needs to get use to the pace of the game. I don’t know if he’s enjoying his football or not but I’m sure they’ll assess the situation at the end of the season.
Drinking culture aside, from which you were involved in many infamous tales, what do you think is the biggest difference between the ’90s when you came through, and now?
You’re in the limelight a lot more than we were in nineties. There’s no doubt about that. People have camera phones now – you could get away with a little bit more back then. The world this day with social media is very different – it was professional then but it’s not as professional as it is now. That’s why they earn lots of money- you have to be a good model and a good pro. You could get away with going out drinking because most clubs were doing the same. Now when you go to the pub someone will have a camera, so you have to be careful.
If you could switch, would you have preferred to have played when you did, or now?
I was lucky – I had a bit of socialising and a bit of success. You should never regret when you come through- I had a bit of socialising and a bit of fun, but we did also have a lot of seriousness. Winning medals is the most important thing when you retire, and all you really want to say when you look back is that you played in a very successful team.
You played a pivotal role for Wenger’s two most successful sides – the 1997/1998 double cup winning team and the ‘Invincibles’. Interestingly, Gary Neville suggested in his autobiography that the 1998 side was better. Would you agree?
It’s very hard to call. The 1997/98 team had that famous back four, with David Seaman, but the Invincibles was decent as well. Lauren was very good, we all know about Sol (Campbell), Kolo Toure was in his prime, and then Ashley Cole – that’s not a bad back four either. Bergkamp and Vieira were both already there, Pires was a top class player… Henry of course… but Anelka and Ian Wright were incredible in 1998 too. Maybe you could say it was more competitive in 2004 – in 1998 only Arsenal or United could win it – teams like Man City get stronger and stronger every season. But then 1997/98 was our first title- we didn’t have a big squad, the team more or less stayed the same every single week… it’s tough, I think it would be unfair to say the 1997/98 team was better.
You’ve been prominent in punditry since you retired, but do you see yourself heading into coaching in the future?
I don’t know. If you can’t play football, the second best thing to do is to watch it. I’m really enjoying it, going to different games. The only problem with coaching is that it’s very regimental- you’ve got to be there at eight in the morning and leave at five. What I like now is that I can do whatever I like. That said, one day I might wake up in the morning and want to do my badges and go back on the training field- I’m still young enough to do it. I’d certainly still like to be involved in the academy- that would be my dream. I’m not too sure about football management- I think it might be too stressful these days- you see the most experienced managers looking stressed. I don’t really want to go down that route at the moment, but who knows if someone were to give me an opportunity.
And lastly, we loved your story of Kolo Toure’s hilarious trial when he joined Arsenal. Is there any other unearthed gold from your time there?
One of the funnier ones was when we had a new chef and he didn’t know what the lads were like – he was probably a little bit nervous as well. It was Lee Dixon’s birthday in 1997 and this new chef was tasked with making a cake – for some reason everybody was there. So this turned out to be a great test to see if he could handle a joke. He brought it out and we started sniffing it, and we let him know that’s it wasn’t right – it was off – so the next minute he came over. I said, ‘look mate we can’t eat that – there’s something wrong with the cream’. The chef put his head down to sniff and the whole cake was immediately flipped straight into his face. He had cream all over his face and his glasses – but his reaction was so good – he didn’t bite or have a go and we knew he was one of us. Wenger was in the canteen queue and saw the chef looking disheveled. We were worried about Wenger’s reaction, but then he just started laughing too. We always had a lot of fun in the canteen and in training, and that’s what it’s all about.
The mission of the Carlsberg fan squad is to make football better for fans. That’s why, If Carlsberg did Pundits…they’d probably be just like you. Carlsberg and talkSPORT have joined forces to give one fan their big break on national radio and this weekend sees the potential pundits face off in our London regional heat. Head to ThePeoplesPundit.co.uk for details of where you can see the pundits take each other on. #PeoplesPundit.