Ben Parker turns 31 in three weeks’ time and retirement is upon him. There are ways of leaving the door open to a short extension of his career but Parker is ready to move on and has already told Harrogate Town that his days as a player with them are done.
The sequence of events which brought him to this, which took him from Leeds United to non-league football by the age of 25, provoke no bitterness. There were decisions he could have avoided at critical moments and injuries he might have tackled differently but Parker represents the salt of Leeds United's academy: the kids who grew up with the club’s wallpaper in their bedrooms and duvet covers on their beds.
There are so many who tell that same story, those who were his peers and those who are emerging into the first team now, and Parker is happy to let history record that he played 55 times for Leeds. The minor hamstring tear which mushroomed into insurmountable fitness problems, the way the cards fell for him in the end: these things happen and to more players than him.
Parker was a quick, direct left-back; so quick that after joining the academy at Thorp Arch he was scouted by Leeds Rhinos and offered the chance to train with them after playing in a national tournament with his school rugby team. In 2004, as a 16-year-old, he had Manchester United in one ear and Eddie Gray in the other, the latter persuading him to stay at Elland Road and resist the invitation to cross the Pennines.
“When I finished school, before the season Leeds got relegated from the Premier league, Eddie was manager and two or three clubs wanted to buy me,” Parker told the YEP’s Inside Elland Road podcast. “Eddie sat down with me and my dad and said ‘stay. I’m hoping to get the manager’s job full time’. It never happened for him but he wanted me to be involved with the first team and saying that to a 16-year-old lad was a dream come true.
"I suppose it wasn’t a tricky decision, with my dislike for that club (Manchester United). I could have gone but at the same time, I’d played with Eddie’s son Nicky and Eddie used to stay behind and watch (youth-team) games on Saturdays after first-team training. I always looked up to Eddie. He was a hero of my dad’s and anything he said I tried to take on board. Even now I do the same, because he’s got so much knowledge.”
Parker completed a loan at Bradford City before Dennis Wise blooded him in 2007. He went out again to Darlington during Gary McAllister’s tenure but earned the confidence of Simon Grayson after Grayson became the third manager to take on the task or resurrecting a League One club in December 2008.
The defender's moment, his defining 30 seconds, came in the second leg of Leeds’ play-off semi-final against Millwall at the end of Grayson’s season. United’s goal on the night was converted by Luciano Becchio but made by Parker, bursting from the edge of his own box, feeding Jermaine Beckford and Andy Robinson before swinging an inch-perfect cross to the feet of Becchio six yards out. Marcelo Bielsa would have been proud. Those watching on television remember the words of Sky’s commentator: “Becchio well placed …” Those inside the ground remember the noise.
“There are times when people say ‘can you remember this game or that game’ and I say ‘not at all’,” Parker said. “But that sticks out.
"Robbo released me and as soon as he did – well, you could say it was a great cross but it was kind of easy because there was a gap between the keeper and the centre-half. The noise was unreal, absolutely unreal. It’s one of those moments where if you weren’t at the stadium you don’t understand. It was the feeling when it went in.”
Leeds lost that semi-final, picked off late on by Jimmy Abdou, but Parker, for the first time, had established himself as first choice. At the time, however, he was preparing to see a specialist about problems with his groin and hamstrings. United’s physiotherapist, Harvey Sharman, deduced that Parker’s issues stemmed from his hips and a series of MRI scans confirmed that Parker needed surgery on both. The defender was less than keen.
“I’d had it for a year so my argument was ‘if I’ve had it for a year, surely I can play for another year’," he said. “Because at the time I actually felt like I was first-choice left-back. I was just about to sign a new deal as well.”
He dug his heels in and, on the first day of the 2009-10 season at home to Exeter City, he set up the opening goal for Jermaine Beckford. Then, in the 28th minute, he pulled a hamstring. It was a minor grade one tear but Parker’s attempts to recover were met with repeated complications.
“It started the snowball effect,” he said. “I’d get to 90 per cent, push to get that extra 10 per cent and then I’d have a setback with the same hamstring. I kept on breaking down, breaking down and it was down to my hips not functioning.”
Parker underwent surgery on one hip and was told that after six weeks of recuperation, he would be ready to have surgery on his second. By the time he recovered from the first bout, Leeds were top of League One and had landed a plum tie in the third round of the FA Cup.
“I should have probably had both done (hips),” he said. “But as I was approaching the six-week period, the FA Cup draw takes place and who do we draw? Man United away. So I’m thinking ‘if I don’t get my right hip done, I’ve got half a chance of being involved. If I get my hip done, I’ve got no chance. Does it really need doing?’.”
Parker gambled and fell two weeks short of making the squad at Old Trafford, looking on as Grayson inspired a sensational 1-0 victory over Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United.
From there, he played just eight more times for Leeds and, having torn an Achilles tendon, left the club shortly before the end of his contract in 2012, while Neil Warnock was manager.
Does he wish now that he had bitten the bullet with surgery sooner? “I don’t look back and regret it,” Parker said. “If I did then it would be a different story but I’m happy with the decision I made. I wanted to get back for Man United and we were top of the league. I wanted to contribute.”
Without a club for several months and feeling the urge to start playing again, Parker made his way to Guiseley and non-league in 2013. He has spent the past two years with Harrogate Town but was kept out of the side this season by Liam Kitching, the teenager who Leeds loaned to Harrogate in July. Now 30, Parker started his UEFA B coaching licence three months ago and is working with youth-team players at Wetherby Road.
“Playing wise I’ve finished with (Harrogate),” he said. “I don’t know if I’ve fully hung my boots up for good but it’s looking that way. It’s something I’ve been thinking about for months now – the next part of my career.”
*To hear the full interview with Ben Parker on this week’s Inside Elland Road podcast, visit the YEP website here.