Injury robbed Ben parker of a career at United. Now working as a pundit for Radio Leeds he tells Phil Hay why he won’t give up on his dream.
Retirement is a long-term occupation for many English footballers. Retirement from the age of 25 must feel like an eternity. Ben Parker will be ready when the day comes and philosophical about it but the flicker of hope remains.
Once an established left-back at Leeds United, he finds himself without a club as the new English season gathers pace. Age is not against him but reputation and an awkward fitness record are. He turns 26 in November and has not played week-in-week-out football for the best part of three years. He left Leeds in the spring of 2012 and has been unattached ever since.
“I can see why clubs are reluctant to take a chance on me,” he says. “They look at my history, they see that I’ve hardly played and they run a mile. Budgets seems to be smaller than ever and my injury record’s hampering me. I’m in a Catch-22.”
Now more than ever. This summer Parker completed an intense training programme with Mick Clegg, Manchester United’s former fitness coach. He took part in Chesterfield’s pre-season schedule for two weeks and feels as fit as he has in years. The problem for him is persuading clubs to trust his body and tempting those who do to part with what little money they have.
“Three years ago I’d have had a club by now,” Parker says. “Someone would have taken a gamble and given me 12 months to prove myself.
“But money’s so tight now, even in the Championship. Everyone’s tightening their belts and that doesn’t help me. But I’m ready for an opportunity. This off-season is the fittest I’ve been for ages.
“Clubs might be sceptical about that, which I understand, but the flip-side for me is that I know I’m fit and it’s hard to prove that to people when I’m not getting a chance. I’m still looking though. Hopefully something will happen.”
This is how unforgiving football can be. Parker built the crux of a promising career at Leeds, maturing in their academy and integrating himself into the club’s senior side, but a hamstring injury sustained in August 2009 was the trigger for endless operations and complications. It ruined his prospects at Elland Road and damaged his prospects generally. At the time of his initial injury, he was United’s first-choice left-back.
The years in between have been hard. He completed a brief loan at Carlisle United in 2012 but did not earn a contract under Greg Abbott, a coach who worked with him previously in Leeds’ academy. Abbott thought much of Parker but was not sure about his fitness. More recently, ex-United striker Brian Deane attempted to take the defender to Norwegian club Sarpsborg but was overruled by his board. Parker had already prepared for the move.
“I loved it in Norway and Brian Deane was ready to sign me,” Parker says. “It wasn’t his fault. Other people in the background fought against it. I don’t know why.
“That was hard to take because I thought it was happening. I’d got it into my head that I’d be in a different country, taking on a different lifestyle and so on. Then you get the phone call. “It’s difficult being in this situation, I’m not going to lie, but I don’t work myself up about it. You just go round in circles if you do. There are times when I’m watch games at Elland Road and still think I could do a job but it wasn’t meant to be.”
Parker was at United’s stadium for Saturday’s Yorkshire derby against Sheffield Wednesday and also attended their games against Brighton and Leicester City as a pundit for BBC Radio Leeds. “The difference now is that I have to concentrate for 90 minutes,” he jokes. “But as much as I’d love to be out there, the next best thing is to be involved in some way.”
He kept his hand in last week by assisting United’s recruitment officer, Terry Potter, during open trials at Thorp Arch, assessing kids who are yet to turn 10. Parker himself joined Leeds’ youth-team system at the age of eight and could see himself in an academy job. “I’m not sure I’m that interested in management,” he says, “but the academy side of things interests me, probably because I know it so well. I joined it when I was eight and it’s a special place for me.
“It’s only natural to think about retirement when you’ve had the injuries I’ve had. I’m not ready for it and I’m not looking to go down that route but I have thought about it. It doesn’t scare me to explore other possibilities.
“I haven’t played football regularly for going on three years, maybe a bit longer, so I’m in a position where the transition away from football might be a bit easier. I’m not naive enough to think that it’s football or nothing for me. I just think I can still offer something as a player.”
Parker came into his own in 2009, lighting up United’s play-off semi-final against Millwall by laying on a goal for Luciano Becchio with a run which covered half of the Elland Road pitch. He also created the first goal scored by Leeds in the 2009-2010 season. He was recalled from nowhere two years later for an FA Cup tie against Arsenal at the Emirates and his concession of a late penalty did not obscure a tidy performance.
Parker signed off at Elland Road in 2011 with a 90-minute outing in a League Cup tie against Bradford City, his last outing for the club. He resigned himself to leaving United a long time ago but has not given up on football, even though the afterlife feels manageable.
“Footballers are like robots,” Parker says. “You’re brought up being told what to do, a bit like an army regime – when to train, when to eat, when to sleep. It goes on and on. So it’s a big shock when players retire and that’s why you hear about them having drink and gambling problems. They don’t know what to do with their time and no-one’s there to advise them.
“But I know I can cope, whatever happens.”