Csaba Abrahall looks back on a bench-warmer in the days before three subs, a loyal servant who rarely got to serve – Ipswich Town’s Mr Reserve Team, Tommy Parkin
So successful was Ipswich’s youth policy in the 1970s that anyone learning his trade at Portman Road could reasonably expect to have to consider storage arrangements for international caps sooner or later. Eric Gates, George Burley and John Wark were among many who made the transition from Ipswich junior to full international. Tommy Parkin, a member of the club’s FA Youth Cup-winning team in 1973, was not, yet his rather prosaic contribution is remembered almost as fondly as those of his illustrious peers.
After turning pro in December 1973, the midfielder and occasional full-back from Gateshead had to wait four years for his first-team bow, with only brief loan spells at Grimsby and Peterborough to add variety to the diet of constant reserve-team football. When his debut finally arrived in January 1978 he was almost 22 and probably already knew that he was not quite going to make it. If he didn’t know then, the thought must surely have crossed his mind before his 27th birthday, when he was still awaiting his 20th senior appearance.
At last, in 1983-84, it appeared his patience was to be rewarded. But though a fixture in the team for half the season, when relegation loomed Bobby Ferguson turned to the youth of Mark Brennan and the experience of Romeo Zondervan to freshen up midfield. The new-look team avoided the drop and Parkin slipped back down. He eventually left Ipswich in the summer of 1987, after 13 years, 82 appearances and zero goals.
Yet though the sight of his name on the team sheet was rare enough to bring about momentary bewilderment, Parkin somehow remains synonymous with Town’s glory years. Always there at the back of the team photo – sometimes with moustache, sometimes without – he was ever available to step in when required. Ferguson described him as being “worth his weight in gold” and his departure was for so long unimaginable.
His career was not without highlights. Few players have made their full debut at Wembley, as Parkin did in the 1978 Charity Shield. He even went as close to scoring as he ever would before Nottingham Forest began strolling to victory. His bench-warming exploits during the second leg of Town’s 1981 UEFA Cup final triumph over AZ67 Alkmaar were good enough to earn him a medal. And, while his team-mates had to resort to appearing in Escape To Victory to meet Pelé, Parkin once played against him when on loan at the preposterously named Connecticut Bicentennials.
Perhaps these fleeting encounters with glory kept Tommy satisfied for more than a decade in the stiffs, as he never seemed discontent. He was happy to play reserve-team football, honest enough to realise that he had failed to take the opportunities to establish himself and that he was simply not as good as his contemporaries (“It was a pleasure to train and sometimes play with so many international stars,” he once said).
It is difficult to imagine his career, ended in typically understated fashion in a League Cup defeat at Cambridge, being mirrored today, certainly at Ipswich. With clubs increasingly keen to cut back on salaries, Parkin would be freed as soon as his contract was up, if not before. Averaging only six or seven games a season, he would swiftly be deemed expendable.
But though few Ipswich fans saw enough of him to form a sound impression of what sort of player he was, we all know Parkin as the man who was content to stay at the club for so many years, despite playing so little. And in a strange way that makes him special.
From WSC 200 October 2003. What was happening this month
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