“I used a psychologist when I was playing,” Scott Parker says. “It’s one of the most powerful things: how you can have a concrete head and not let things in. Of course there’s a technical element but nine times out of 10 when you’re having a bad day it will mainly be mental: the mistake you’ve made, the comment you’ve heard, the crowd’s reaction to a shot over the bar – after that the fear’s coming in.”
The mind fascinates Parker. Fulham’s manager wants to understand the human psyche. He aims to give his players resilience and the tools to think clearly under pressure. “You have your first 10 touches and kick it into the stand, there’s a technical element,” he says. “But what makes the 11th touch go in the stand again? It’s probably because the crowd are on me. You need to think: ‘Let me go back to basics and build.’ It starts in your head and taking a deep breath.”
Less than a year into his first management job Parker understands how fear takes hold. As a youngster at Charlton he was carefree. That changed when he moved to Chelsea in 2004. The pressure was hard and it did not become any easier when he joined Newcastle in 2006.
“I started to struggle,” he says. “I’d go out every day on the grass and train my left foot. I’d try and get as fit as I could. But there are certain elements in games where it’s nothing to do with technique. It’s more: ‘I was training today and was really sloppy in the way I was.’ I took it into coaching.
“These boys are only human and at times there are 30,000 screaming at you. Now they’ve got the added pressure of going into the changing room and the first thing you see them do is click on their phone and Twitter comes up. You don’t know the effect it’s having on players but it’s at the forefront of my mind. When I was playing it was a newspaper report. Now it’s a whole new dynamic. You type your name in and nine times out of 10 it’s negative.
“We do live in a world where with the click of a button you’ve got something on your doorstep. I talk a lot about earning the right to take a picture of yourself. Earn the right to be a top player, earn the right to win a trophy. There’s so much money in what we’re doing and added to that is a social media platform where with one picture you can pretend to be whoever you want to be. In reality is it really like that?”
At 39 years old and the father of four boys, Parker is an interesting mix. He has old-school values and hates the falseness and toxicity of social media. At the same time, however, he is empathetic, inquisitive and flexible enough to build connections with his players.
The former England midfielder – he won 18 caps from 2003-13 – was thrown in at the deep end, appointed on a caretaker basis when Fulham sacked Claudio Ranieri last March. Relegation from the Premier League was a certainty but the club saw enough to give Parker the job permanently.
The early signs are promising for Fulham, who visit Manchester City in the FA Cup on Sunday. They are third in the Championship, three points behind second-placed Leeds, and Parker speaks enthusiastically about building for the long term. As a player he was everywhere. As a manager he wants standards to be high across the board.
At the start of pre-season Parker commissioned an external company to assess his squad’s personality. “We profiled every player on how they want to be addressed, where they sit, certain spectrums of their personality in that sense,” he says. “We did that so as a manager I have a rough idea of: ‘This is what he’s like, he doesn’t like a brutal honest conversation, he doesn’t want to be exposed in front of his peers.’
“Those little snippets give me a lot of info because now, if I’m dealing with a player I need to sanction, I have a rough idea of where I need to get. The players understood we’re all different. What Joe Bryan accepts and what Kevin McDonald or Harry Arter accept is very different and we need to understand we can’t all be like this.”
Parker has reintegrated Aboubakar Kamara, who was arrested at Fulham’s training ground last January. The striker signed a new contract last month. “At times you have to manage him very differently from some of the others,” Parker says. “But I’ve not had a problem. I wouldn’t accept having a big problem with him either.”
Accepting that footballers have changed is part of the challenge. “I don’t see as much of a resilience any more,” Parker says. “I look at my kids sometimes and it’s so easy to jump from one ship to the next. It’s easy to say: ‘If that’s not working, let’s get on to something else.’ There’s going to be some bumps along the way but you’ve got to keep going for it again.
“There are core values about how you conduct yourself, your work ethic and having a real passion about what you do. They’re core values that will always stick with me and I’ll always use in the modern day.
“They’re the traits I need to instil in my players even more because I realise they’re probably deficient in them because they’ve not been around them as much as I have. Can I give them something which I know will make them better? And vice versa. I’m not on social media. At times I don’t know how quickly the world’s moving and I’m constantly having to check. I suppose I’m trying to learn some bits from this new generation.”
Parker is on a roll. “The last thing I want to do is come across like that guy going: ‘It wasn’t like that in my time.’ There are amazing things happening. At the same time when you’re trying to develop human beings and how they think, football for me, 20% is probably technical and what you can do with the ball – and the majority of professional footballers can do that. The biggest part that separates the real top players from the good ones is how you deal with setbacks.
“Every day can you drive yourself to improve? Every day can you drive others? In the good teams and the best players I played with that’s what they had: self-drive. You don’t expect to play. There’s a fear about being dropped. A fear of not performing. Fear drives them on.”