On 22nd July 1981, spectators inside the Spartan Stadium cluster together to form a modest crowd of just over 11,000. The home side, San Jose Earthquakes, are 2-0 down at the start of the second half. In typical fashion, officiating controversy riddled the fixture. “They [the Earthquakes] are in a state of upheaval,” the commentator warns the viewer. “They are so concerned with the officiating that their minds are not really on the soccer game.”
Yet, the game is far from done. The horde of wishful on-lookers is watching with piercing anticipation as a 5’7 figure collects the ball in the middle of Fort Lauderdale Strikers’ half.
The individual immediately injects fear into the opposition. He drives and skates past the defender, leaving the first victim on the floor. Now in the box, he cuts onto his left-foot leaving another two off-balance, but they just about recovered. Bewildered by the resistance, the player dances back onto his right foot and then his left again. This time both resurgent defenders have no answer: the helpless souls cut adrift. The perpetrator then beats the goalkeeper. The goal was vintage George Best and the start of a 3-2 comeback.
It was also the first memory Phil Parkes recounted of his time with the football great. The veteran goalkeeper was at the other end of the pitch, watching with admiration as Best weaved himself in-and-out. “They said it was the best goal he had ever scored,” the veteran goalkeeper reminisced to The Football Pink.
The issues Best faced away from the pitch marred his brilliance on it. His personal story is agonising; Parkes’ experience with him, however, is solemn. “What I will say about George is that when I was in San Jose, they just had his son Calum. I was there for six months, and in those six months, he never had a drink. He trained every day. He was great with the American kids: they loved him. I can honestly say he never had a drink. He was different class, and it is a great shame for what happened.”
George Best was one of the few all-time greats Parkes played with or against participating in the North American Soccer League revolution.
“I played against Pelé, Johan Cruyff and Carlos Alberto, Brazil’s captain. The best players of my time played in North America. They were coming towards the end of their careers but Beckenbauer came back to play in Germany and Alan Ball went to Southampton. It was better than people gave it credit for.”
“They were quality players. They were coming to an end of their careers, but they could still play. When Franz Beckenbauer left New York Cosmos to play in Germany, they had a testimonial game. I was lucky enough to be chosen for the North American team. The stadium in New Jersey had 80,000. They sold 65,000. Pele said he would play the first half. In two hours, they sold the lot. That was all because of Pele.”
Long before Parkes had the opportunity to participate in the distinctive NASL era, the former goalkeeper enjoyed a bonding career with Wolverhampton Wanderers. It was also where he was coincidentally a member of the original kick-start to the inevitable soccer fever.
“When I made my debut in 1966, we went onto Los Angeles and we were Los Angeles Wolves. We won the championship. That was the first time they had professional soccer in America. They imported teams from around the world. In 1969, we went to Kansas City: we were Kansas City Wolves. We won the tournament in Kansas as well.”
Nevertheless, the bulk of Parkes’ American adventure would need to wait while he established himself in Wolves folklore. Parkes, or otherwise known as ‘Lofty’, joined Wanderers as a 15-year-old from West Brom. Present history could have been rewritten if the board decided to sell him to Newcastle early on. They chose not to.
Prophetically, he went on to enjoy over a decade at Molineux. Ronnie Allen handed Parkes his league debut, a moment he regarded as his favourite as a player.
“Ronnie Allen was different class. He was a great player himself. He played for West Brom and I was born at West Brom. I saw him play. He gave me my chance in the team. At the start of that season [1966/67], I was in the fourth team. Two goalkeepers left and Fred Davies got injured, then he put me in. He showed great faith in me.”
“When you talk about people being before his time, Ronnie Allen probably was. Training was different from what we were used to before. Ronnie was unlucky because we were doing quite well. Wolves sold Alun Evans to Liverpool. Evans was the first £100,000 teenager.”
“He came back with Liverpool and they beat Wolves 6-0. Alun scored two goals. I didn’t play. They sacked him straight after which was unfair. We believe he was sacked on that basis. Allen didn’t make the decision to sell Evans, it was the boards.”
Bill McGarry and eight relatively stable years followed with Parkes making 382 appearances, 127 of which were consecutive – a club record. In 1972, Wolves reached the UEFA Cup Final.
“We had a great run. The biggest disappointment was having to play Tottenham in the Final. Playing Spurs in a two-legged Final home and away was just like playing two league games. Now it is decided before where the Final will be. It is better like that.”
“It didn’t dampen the occasion,” he added, “because you got to the Final of a UEFA tournament. It would have just been better to have been a one-off game somewhere.”
Parkes would also miss out on playing in the League Cup Final two years later after breaking an ankle in the build-up to the match. His step-in teammate, Gary Pierce, competed with Parkes for the coming seasons. This scenario eventually came to a climax when Lofty loaned to Vancouver Whitecaps in 1976. However, it wasn’t until Paul Bradshaw signed that Parkes realised his time at Molineux was ending.
“We lost to Aston Villa and the club signed Bradshaw for £150,000. He was young and a quality goalkeeper. I knew my time was numbered. I was there for 18 years, as a professional and as a kid. I had a great time. When I had the chance to go back [to Vancouver], I decided I would. I could have gone to Millwall, Derby and a few other clubs.”
Vancouver was the place to be for Parkes. The glistening ocean surrounding the city and overseeing whitecapped mountains laid an imprint on the former goalkeeper since he first visited with Wolves. The city gave Parkes a unique aesthetic value. Likewise, he also holds an enormous value in the Vancouver Whitecaps team he played for between 1976 and 1979 and the overall era he played in.
“From my point of view, Vancouver was better [to Wolves]. The coach was Tony Waiters, who has just passed away. Tony played for Blackburn and played for England. He was a goalkeeper. We never had goalkeeping coaches when we played. Tony was the first one I ever had. My understudy was Bruce Grobbelaar and Tony had a great influence on Bruce’s career. He had a fantastic career when he came to Liverpool didn’t, he?”
“People don’t realise how good soccer was. We won the championship in 1979. Alan Ball, a world cup winner, played for us. Kevin Hector, who played for Derby, was upfront; Willie Johnson was a Scotland international; Rodger Kenyon from Everton; John Craven from Coventry; and Ray Lewington was on loan from Chelsea. We had a great side.”
“We played exhibition games and never lost. We played one against Manchester United when Tommy Docherty was manager. We beat Borussia Mönchengladbach, who at the time had just won the European Cup, 4-3 in 1976. People didn’t give it the credit it deserved.”
“People will say the best players are Messi and Ronaldo. Could George Best play now with the pitches they play on and where you can’t tackle?” Parkes elaborates.
“Could they play when we played with the pitches we played on and when the first chance the fall-back got, he was going to clatter him? It is all hypothetical, but I think George Best could play now but they wouldn’t be as good as they are now when we played. It is a totally different game. They know whoever clatters them, they will get sent off.”
Parkes touches on an argument when fans and football commentators weigh-in on the inescapable Greatest Of All Time debate. Whether people are happy to take his view, the sport has undoubtedly transformed scientifically and lawfully.
“Centre forwards used to smash into goalkeepers,” he says. “It was a part of the game. Now you only have to look at the goalkeeper and it is a foul. It is a totally different game for goalkeepers. It was a fair game. I’m glad I played when I played. Not money-wise, but game-wise. The game has changed completely.”
“Everybody played with injuries. You could have a cortisone injection. I played against Chelsea with a temperature of 104°F (40°C) because the manager told the doctor I have to play. That wouldn’t happen today. I’m not saying it is right for players to play with injections because a lot of them struggled afterwards. In them days, players were frightened to lose their place in the team, so they did it.”
The biggest change between Parkes’ goalkeeping era and the modern game for the Wolves legend is the modern goalkeeping gloves.
“We had to make our own. The gloves they wear now are brilliant. The first pair I ever had was when I went to Vancouver in 1978. The goalkeepers now have these great gloves, but they don’t catch anything! They punch or push everything. They say the ball swerves, the ball has always done that ever since they took out the laces.”
Despite this, he has one warning for the future of the sport. “I also think they are overprotected today,” Parkes says. “With the way the game is going, it will end up with no physical contact and then it isn’t a game.”