How a drunken brawl in Hong Kong helped Ray Parlour knuckle down and become Arsenal legend
The midfielder sobered up and wised up after narrowly avoiding a six-month prison sentence after a Wan Chai night out went wrong in 1995
Ray Parlour’s promising career at Arsenal almost ended on his first visit to Hong Kong, when he faced six months in jail after a drunken Wan Chai brawl.
Back in the city almost 21 years to the day, older and considerably wiser, Parlour says that in hindsight his narrow escape was a wake-up call he needed to become one of the club’s all-time greats.
“That was a young lad, bad timing, wrong place and I totally regret that,” says Parlour, who was in town to speak at Hong Kong Football Club’s sportsman’s dinner this week as part of the HKFC Citi Soccer Sevens.
“I was fined big money, and learned my lesson. You look back on your career and some things you do regret.”
Parlour escaped with a HK$4,000 fine after punching a 65-year-old taxi driver, who had taken offence to the then 22-year-old chucking prawn crackers in the open bonnet of his car.
As with many ill-fated tales of Hong Kong debauchery, it involved such fine establishments as Joe Bananas and the Big Apple nightclub. Tony Adams, Chris Kiwomya and Parlour stumbled into the early morning light after what the court was told was at least 12 pints (if correct, qualifying as a quiet night for a team of legendary boozers).
They “accidentally ended up in the triad gangster area” writes Parlour in his new autobiography, Romford Pele; it all kicked off as locals, triads or otherwise, rushed to the taxi driver’s defence.
“I think it was about seven in the morning, we were a bit worse for wear and walked the wrong way,” recalls Parlour at the Excelsior hotel in Causeway Bay, not far from the scene of the crime but blissfully triad-free.
“I was trying to get out of it, more or less in self-defence, with people attacking yer. Where I’m from you’re taught to defend yourself; next thing I know I’m in the police station – the team went home and left me there.”
In his cell, Parlour, who had become a regular in the Arsenal team that season, began to sober up and realised he needed to wise up too. His barrister, Adrian Huggins QC, apologised on his behalf to the people of Hong Kong and Parlour got a shock on his return to Highbury when chairman David Dein presented him with the bill.
“They fined me for all the lawyers’ fees which was about 12 grand [sterling] – I’m only on 600 quid a week, that was half a year’s wages.”
‘Arsenal Ace Nicked in Red Light Punch-Up’ blared British tabloid the Sun, while the Mirror went with ‘Parlour Has Shamed the Nation’.
“You’ve got to learn your lessons,” he says. “I say to players now, you’re in the public eye a lot more than when I was, but you have to learn your lesson as you get older and more mature, and I did. I said I’d never do that again.
“I thought, ‘What do I want to be known for, do I want to go that way or that way?’ It was simple – I love football, I love playing for Arsenal, I’m going to have to improve this and went that way.
“I really worked hard, knuckled down – staying behind after training, doing a bit more – I think after that my career went that way [points to the ceiling] and kept going that way.
“I was lucky in that it clicked into me, ‘I can’t be going out drinking, can’t be out socialising’.”
Parlour would go on to win three league titles and another three FA Cups (he already had one) with Arsenal. He was a lynchpin of the double season in 97-98 and part of the unbeaten ‘Invincibles’ of 03-04. It could have been very different had he not learned a tough lesson in HK.
“No doubt, no doubt, it could easy have gone the other way, and I can see how players do go down – you’re in the limelight, enjoying all the fame and the socialising. I had to change my ways and I did.”
Parlour is actually enjoying a pint as he recounts the tale, but why should he not relax on his working holiday. It’s certainly far removed from the gargantuan boozing he recounts in his book.
“It was very much drink culture football in them days; when Arsene Wenger come in, [captain] Tony Adams gave up drinking, and that was more or less the turning point for me, because I was very easily led.
“If he rang up and said, ‘You coming down the pub?’ I wouldn’t say no, I’d say ‘Of course I will, no problem,’ so when he weren’t going down the pub I wasn’t going out as much.”
Amid the japes, Parlour’s book is a reminder that the midfielder was a terrific player, his contribution overshadowed by greats such as Dennis Bergkamp, Patrick Vieira and Thierry Henry. He holds the all-time Premier League appearances record for the club, something Wenger was unaware of.
“I don’t mind that at all [being overshadowed] – the main thing for myself was that I was in the team every week. The fact that I wasn’t in the limelight like some of the players never bothered me at all, it was about playing that following week or being involved.”
It’s notable that Arsenal’s last title was in 2004, coincidentally or not Parlour’s last season. As he highlights the current squad’s deficiencies it’s easy to suggest – he certainly wouldn’t – that they’re also missing someone with his drive and tenacity.
“They need a couple of players no doubt, Arsene Wenger knows that,” he says. “They need a top-class centre-half who’s gonna be skipper and a top striker, like Ian Wright or Henry, who’s going to be finishing all the chances. [Mesut] Ozil created the most chances in the league, if we had an Aguero or Suarez they’d have won the league.
“[But] the squad itself are all 25, 26 coming to their peak, they just need a couple of key, key players.”
Who will sign them is another matter, with the ‘Wenger Out’ brigade becoming ever more vocal.
“The problem is, who’s available?” says Parlour about his old mentor’s situation. “You can sack managers, but you’ve got to have a plan, you’ve lost Klopp, Guardiola’s going to Man City.
“People say ‘We need change,’ but be careful, it doesn’t always work out like that.
“I’m a bit biased because I played under him and know what he does, he s brilliant at what he does.
“I’m biased but times move on and there will be a time we have to move on, but I’m a bit worried saying get rid of him – there has to be a plan and somebody to take the club to the next level.”