There isn’t a head coach in recent memory, who has divided fan opinion as much as, now ex-boss, Scott Parker…
Fulham supporters have mostly been unanimous in their adulation, disdain or at times despair towards the man in the Craven Cottage hot seat. Roy Hodgson is forever a hero. Laurie Sanchez and Felix Magath are contenders for worst Fulham manager of the century. Mark Hughes got results, but wasn’t very likeable and not many were sad to see him go. Those statements can be made around any group of Whites’ fans without much cause for rebuttal.
But Parker is different. Depending on who you talk to, Fulham have lost a good football man and will potentially rue the day they allowed him to run into the outstretched arms of AFC Bournemouth. Or, he was a inexperienced pretender who underachieved and the club are better off without him. One thing that can not be denied is the drawn-out nature of his departure has left even his staunchest supporters with a bitter taste. It seems obvious he no longer envisioned a future for himself at the club, and whether you believe stories of him holding out for severance pay, or feel the club have taken advantage of a rival, wanting a manager they were no longer prepared to fully back, regardless of the side of the fence you sit on, it has to be a concern that an integral employee who ultimately was not sacked, has chosen to leave for a club in the same division, with arguably less resources.
So how should we reflect on a man who split opinions on his dress-sense as much as his tactics and team selections? To fully rationalise his time in charge you have to go back, ironically, to Bournemouth. Parker had taken over a sinking ship in a caretaker capacity, the third head coach of the season after Slavisa Jokanovic was unable to replicate his brand of total football at a higher level, and Claudio Ranieri’s “risk-free” appointment proved to be anything but. That day on the south coast, Fulham fans, who had up to then endured a miserable season with very few bright spots, enjoyed a relegation party. The mood around the club was up despite relegation having been confirmed. Parker was blameless, and in some corners was credited for one of those few happier times. The suggestion was, he had conducted the half-time team talk which inspired a memorable comeback against Brighton.
For the first time in a long time Fulham was a fun club again. They got the win at The Vitality too as Parker talked of the importance of reestablishing a positive mood around the club and connection with the fan base. He had done enough to secure a shot at the guiding the team back to the Premier League, and while not everyone’s first choice, few were outraged at his appointment. The season started with a stutter at Barnsley, but was followed with a comfortable win over Blackburn, and then the most dominant performance in EFL Championship history, as Millwall were outclassed under the lights at The Cottage. The rest of the season didn’t provide the same level of thrill on a consistent basis, but there were flashes of coaching pedigree. The 2-1 win over Leeds staked Parker’s claim as an intelligent and tactically astute coach. A first-half mauling of Huddersfield proved that Parkerball can be joy to watch, even if the second period shone a light onto some of it’s frailties.
One significant landmark of Parker’s tenure is the pandemic. He guided the team through an unprecedented period, and while the return to football was initially a tricky one, as losses to Brentford and then Leeds all but ruled it automatic promotion, a strong run-in secured a play-off berth that led The Cottagers back to Wembley, the site of Parker’s greatest victory. His tactics stifled a free-scoring Brentford side, who came into the biggest game in their history full of confidence. There were suggestions of fear in the Fulham camp, but no signs of this were evident once the game kicked off. The rehearsed free-kick that Joe Bryan dispatched was suggested by Parker, lending further support to his meticulous nature. Fulham overcame a fierce local rival on the biggest stage, with the highest stakes. The sort of occasion people tell their grandchildren about in years to come, even if they weren’t allowed to be there in person.
Throughout the most recent season, Fulham demonstrated the ability to be competitive against opposition up and down the table, but an inability to take opportunities to escape the relegation zone. Parker’s conservative approach, the same approach that had secured promotion at the home of football, was now a black mark against him. Despite providing more hope of survival than Jokanovic’s brief foray into the top flight, Parker’s style gave him little in the way of bargaining power if it didn’t reap results. Ultimately, that is what has led us to this point. Those that are content, even happy with his departure, point to his lack of attacking intent. There are those more sympathetic to his plight, that the attacking talent wasn’t at his disposal to do more than keep it tight and stay in the game until a presentable opportunity could be fashioned.
I would suggest that Parker has more in common with more popular incumbents than he has differences. Roy Hodgson recognised the frailties of the team he inherited and made them a solid, defence-first team. More talented players further forward allowed that approach to bear fruit. His side also sacrificed possession far more than Parker’s. The most recent head coach also shared gripes with another man still well thought of. Jokanovic’s tension with the hierarchy was mirrored when Parker made comments to the press about the structure of the club towards the end of last season. The same concerns he had, existed before his appointment, and appear to be the determining factor in his departure. Like the fondly remembered Serb, Parker sought to control games with possession. The Millwall win the epitome of his vision for what his team should be. But 80% possession is not sustainable at the highest level, and another way of winning was always going to be needed. Indeed it was his desire for control that ultimately proved his undoing, both on the pitch and seemingly at board level.
Parker has nothing in way of comparison to Hodgson’s successes, but he fared no worse than the revered Jokanovic. It could be argued he fared more favourably. But style points count in the modern game and while both have wins at Wembley, fans will remember the one they were present for. The tangibles of the atmosphere, the celebrations in the stands and the white wall. All of this lends itself to a blissful recall of fearless coach who’s side embodied his philosophy. Parker’s Wembley was empty, devoid of drama for in excess of 90 minutes, and enjoyed from afar. The connection he initially repaired was, in large part, diminished by the restrictions of COVID-19. He was a manager who said all the right things, and for large parts of his tenure, did the right things. The results support this. But the results also didn’t secure his place in Fulham folklore with the required wins for Premier League survival, he just did enough to be given the chance to see it through to the end.
For now his place in Fulham history is one that depends on your perspective. His true legacy may not reveal itself in the immediate future, but the fallout of his departure could yet yield further changes in the clubs structure. Changes he agitated for. That may be the lasting legacy of Scott Parker. And if it is not, we’ll always have that win, over that lot, in the game that mattered most.