Scott Parker’s gut instinct might be to feel out of place. England are a team in transition, Fabio Capello drip-feeding young talent into his side to reinvigorate a set-up that had long felt stale. Yet while the integration of Danny Welbeck and Jack Wilshere, or the blooding of Phil Jones and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain will draw the focus in the months to come, Parker will be made to feel at home. His is a young head on old shoulders.
Those bright young things may represent the long-term future of this England team, but the immediate revitalisation ahead of next summer’s European Championship will not be driven by an obsession with youth. Rather, Capello is seeking personnel who will travel to Poland and Ukraine unburdened by previous failures. A generation of players has been scarred by catastrophes endured from Gelsenkirchen to Bloemfontein. Parker would be 31 at Euro 2012, a veteran amid pups, but he will not be saddled by unwanted baggage.
The Tottenham Hotspur midfielder acknowledges as much. “I do feel part of a ‘new’ team,” he says, with Capello’s preparations gathering pace ahead of Friday’s decisive qualifier in Montenegro. “Obviously, it is clear to see there are a lot of young players, very good players, coming in. People talk about my age, but you could probably include me in that. I haven’t got a lot of experience at international level. I am 30 and one of the oldest in the squad, but I am new to this as well and have not been to a big, big tournament. But this is an evolving England team.”
It is a side in which he increasingly appears integral. After a stop-start existence, with eight caps accrued over eight years, Parker is starting to feel as if he belongs. Successive England managers had deemed the midfielder to lack the zip, and sense of discipline in his defending, to influence international contests. His failure to make the cut for the World Cup squad in 2010 had felt like the final rejection. Yet the fact that he had made the provisional training camp having not featured previously under Capello actually represented a sign of progress. These days, the current footballer of the year is unrecognisable from the £10m midfielder whose impact was so negligible during a brief spell at Chelsea. “I’m better now than I was,” he says. “I now have 10 years’ more experience from when I broke into the game. I can deal with disappointments easier, and all of that helps to make me a better player. It’s the same in any walk of life, in any job. There will be a point where age takes a hit on you, but that isn’t the case with me yet.
“I thought my chance had gone when I didn’t get to South Africa [in 2010]. I went to the pre-World Cup get-together and thought I’d done pretty well, but having not been involved in the qualifiers I knew the manager had his team. In his position I probably would have gone along the same lines as his selection. After that I thought it would be difficult breaking back in under Mr Capello. I just had to get my head down, keep working, and thankfully it has turned around. I got my chance.
“When it came [as a second half substitute in the friendly victory in Denmark back in February] I had to take it. When half-time came and I was on, my attitude was one where I knew I needed to give it a rip, really, and see what happened. Obviously I impressed the manager, which got me a start against Wales. From then on, really, it has kicked on.”
His absence for all but the last 17 minutes of last month’s qualifier against the Welsh felt surprising, though a booking in that potentially feisty game would have ruled him out in Montenegro where England need only a point to progress. It seems unthinkable that Parker will not start in Podgorica. Once passage has been secured, thoughts can turn to breaking his tournament duck.
“The true test, for the whole team, will come in a tournament,” he adds. “In South Africa it didn’t go anywhere near to plan, so we have to do better than we did there. But there’s an excitement and buzz in our team, something you get with young players who are fresh and haven’t experienced disappointments. That could be a massive plus for us.” His passport may suggest he is a veteran but, crammed in among the youngsters, Parker will offer his own brand of wide-eyed enthusiasm around which this team may thrive.