Benjamin Brian Colin Parker – after 17 years at Elland Road, 7 as a professional, so it has come to this; the saddest of partings from one of our very own.
When it was announced that our left back-cum-treatment room fetishist was to be released last week, there seemed to be little other than a collective, accepting, philosophical shrug of the shoulders amongst supporters. A stilted career had run its natural course and another, once promising youngster was to be hitching a ride, looking for a kindly manager in the lower league backwaters to take him on. Yet to let Ben go with so little fanfare would be a disservice to a man who’s been woven into the very fabric of our darkest years and despite the injury setbacks, the setbacks during the setbacks and the horror of being cast aside for George McCartney, has through his indomitable spirit – or delusional denial – never lost the desire to come back, and back, and back again…
It’s hard to conceive that supporters were once excited about Ben Parker; that he represented England at U16, 17, 18 and 19 levels. I can remember feeling disappointed by Kevin Blackwell’s decision to ship him out to Bradford for a season in 2006. I can remember believing that he could be one of the big positives of our first season in League One. In fact he did get 14 games under his belt that season after making his bow in a League Cup tie against Macclesfield, before fate dealt him his first bad hand; a loan spell at Darlington to make room for the arrival of Alan Sheehan.
Such a damning decision may have broken weaker spirited players, but not Ben. He was back pre-season and ready to rip League One a new arsehole! And so it was to be, Ben Parker, Leeds United regular… well, not week in, week out, remember who this is, but all the same, 31 (THIRTY ONE) appearances between August and May – never mind the play-off heartache at the hands of Millwall or Simon Grayson’s arrival, this was the Ben Parker season; 60% of his appearances, crammed into 8 months; his only goal (a 35 yarder at Northampton in an FA Cup replay) and that run, yeah, you know the run, box-to-box, cut back to Becchio…1-0!!!! – F**k you, Jimmy Abdou!
But that was his season, hell there were even whispers of an U21 call-up for the Euros. A full uninterrupted pre-season followed, it seemed we might just have a player on our hands. On the opening day it all looked so good, another lung bursting run from deep and an assist for Beckford to put Leeds ahead against Exeter, then it happened, a hamstring injury.
Since then Ben’s had to contend himself with baffling medical experts from all corners; only he could end up having surgery on his hip as part of that recovery process, or find himself leaving the pitch with a calf injury on his first start, 7 months down the line. Remarkably, that season was the most prolific of his final 3, the 4 bit-part appearances double his outings last season, this campaign he only had a cup tie with Bradford under his belt. It could never end with anything but a parting of the ways.
Yet despite chiefly remaining in our consciousness through the medium of sporadic injury update sound bites and tales of almost mythical proportions of behind closed door comeback games on the official site, Ben has left an indelible mark on our history. Although I cannot be sure of the origin of the phrase “weeks not months” I’d like to believe that Ben will one day be awarded any patenting and merchandising rights.
His spirit cannot be knocked either. Had he been a race horse, the vet would’ve been in with a lethal dose of succinylcholine some ago, but Ben never gave up, and I never gave up on him; the sight of Tony Capaldi and Shane Lowry in the white told me I couldn’t give up. Despite spending half of his career unable to walk unassisted, here was a lad who saw off those chancers, who remained not just in the treatment room, but at the back of the gaffer’s mind (in a very dark corner by the end, admittedly) while the lesser lights of Sheehan and Bessone were shipped out.
Even last season, with the odds outrageously against him, he was still there, still smiling, still believing. “Right Ben, I realise you’ve barely kicked a ball in anger in 18 months, but you’re starting at the Emirates…oh and Walcott might get a run out. Is that okay?” – YES BOSS! The poor guy was on a hiding to nothing, but did he hide? No! Conceding that late penalty was rough on Ben, but nowhere near as rough as learning the replay had paid for George McCartney’s return – we all shared his pain there.
It didn’t get him down though, nothing ever seemed to. In the end he even appeared to achieve the impossible, he found a soft spot in Ken Bates’ heart! When Mika Vayrynen was unceremoniously dumped out of the club, Bates bleated about the £500,000 pissed away by the club, yet on the back of the 2009-10 season where Ben barely mustered 2 hours game time, Ken was moved to create a ‘Special Chairman’s Award’ at the end of season bash, just to honour our number 19.
There were other enduring facets to the lad too; the humour especially. The Soccer AM ‘Crossbar Challenge’ appearance where he declared himself, “Ben Parker – stripper”. He also became the default face of Leeds United for the ceremonial on-pitch presentations and supporter chats, whether he chose to do it so as to still feel involved, or so as to assure worried supporters that he was still alive is unclear, but he excelled.
One particular friend of mine, not usually renown for shying away from public speaking and publicity seeking on the back of an electoral campaign was left a bumbling wreck on the Elland Road pitch by Parker. While standing at the hustings represented no problems, appearing on the hallowed turf inspired an attack of the nerves – sensing his uneasiness, Ben simply assured him everything would be fine and that he was just going to be asked 3 simple questions… he never revealed what they were, then chose to mime them to him, live on the pitch; a certain Mr We Beat The Scum One Nil, for once dumbstruck!
Heck, there was precious little that Ben didn’t possess in his armour, he even became an unlikely sex symbol… or maybe that was just my football wife, Jenny. She loved ‘Sexy Arse’ as much for his buns as his runs – any other takers, ladies?
Ben’s most defining act though, his coup de grace, his finest legacy, that was the moment he stood up and socked it to the man and it’s the reason why I’ll always have a place in my heart that’s marked ‘forever Ben’; it occurred on Saturday 21st January 2012 at the Pavilion pre-match ramble, prior to the Ipswich game. With emotions running high and the board’s ‘fans’ representative’ already being barracked from all directions, he then reduced Peter Lorimer to a raging, flustered mess after contradicting his pay masters to reveal Jonny Howson was sold for the money and not out of any desire to leave. He’d lost his mate and the team its captain and he wasn’t gonna take it lying down.
Inevitably and as widely predicted, he was shipped out on loan days later, up to Carlisle, home for the discarded and damaged footballers of LS11 – his time was up anyway, but he chose to go out in a blaze of glory. It was a beautiful moment and I only regret my boycott of all refreshments at Elland Road deprived me of witnessing its glory. But it laid the path for others; when Snoddy spoke out earlier this month, was his decision merely an expression of his frustration, or inspired by Ben’s act of martyrdom?
If other players follow and fight the good PR fight, our captain may in retrospect be considered a visionary, yet it will serve our great Scot well to remember the words of Isaac Newton:
“If I have been able to see further, it was only because I stood on the shoulders of giants.”
And yet, even now, even after his enrolment as an honorary dissident, Ken Bates, a man typically defined by his bitterness towards those who undermine him, even he was still eager to praise our beloved departing left back last week, offering words of sincere affection and revealing that he’ll be welcome to have continued use of the training facilities.
Ben Parker – what a man!