FA CUP SECOND ROUND, SUNDAY, 2PM
Slough v Gillingham
FROM being jeered by 40,000 of his own club’s fans at Red Star Belgrade to working in a coffee shop, Josh Parker’s career has not gone smoothly. But finally, at 27, the forward is enjoying life at League One Gillingham, after a traumatic two years in Serbia that would have broken a lesser man.
The Slough-born player’s foreign sojourn began in 2013 after spells at QPR, Oldham and Oxford and Dagenham & Redbridge.
In debt, clubless and with a child on the way, people were urging to him to retire. Instead he ended up in Domzale, Slovenia, playing in a picturesque environment for a crazy manager who would tie the players together with ropes to drill them positionally.
His replacement was far more cultured and Parker began to enjoy himself, attracting offers from China, Switzerland and Serbia.
Having chosen big-hitters Red Star Belgrade he got a taste of the spotlight he would face when a huge press pack met him at the airport in January 2015.
‘I thought “don’t they understand I am just Josh Parker from Slough?”,’ he admits. After a goalless first two games the pressure was mounting.
In the third, Parker scored twice but was blamed for poaching one off his strike partner. Then, he says, the club refused to let him go home when his nan died, making him stay for the next match, only to drop him for it.
Even when they relented and booked his flight, he believes they planted stories he had gone Awol. That led to Red Star fans whistling his every touch in a friendly against a Russian team, leading Parker to recall: ‘I didn’t really want to touch the ball.’
He was soon left out of the side and not getting paid. ‘They told me, “you have enough money to last you”. There were boys at the club who hadn’t been paid for seven or eight months who were taking loans off family.’
After six months on loan at Aberdeen he returned to Belgrade in January 2016 and asked for a pay-off. ‘They said “we don’t do them, we will just make you suffer”,’ he said.
He was made to train alone but given a ball to use. ‘Then they came up and said “we need that ball”. He spent three months in the gym. Still unpaid he could not afford a flat so ended up in the grim, communist-era team hotel with no wi-fi or TV and told not to contact his team-mates.
‘When something as simple as conversation is taken from you, let alone what you have been doing since you were six years old, it throws your whole world off,’ he said.
‘I felt I was going insane but my mum said if you walk away they have won and you are coming back to nothing.’ The PFA put pressure on Red Star who then allowed him to train which meant jogging around another pitch, although adds Parker: ‘They’d turn off the floodlights so I was running in the dark.’
When a lawyer told him he could end his contract, he returned home but still Red Star would not release him. From July 2016 to January 2017 he did not kick a ball and worked in a coffee shop before Wealdstone got in touch and somehow managed to spring him from his contract.
‘I was close to tears,’ said Parker, who has also won his case against Real Star, but been unable to recover all his pay.
A trial with Gillingham led to a contract and, almost two years on, the Antigua international has already played more games for the Gills than the entirety of his career for 11 other clubs in eight years. On Sunday, he faces hometown team Slough in the FA Cup, a chance to reflect on a journey few lower-league players can imagine.
‘I’ve probably gone through more than anyone in football,’ he admits.
‘I try to use my time more wisely because so much was taken from me.
‘At Red Star people were horrible to me so I became a horrible person. At Gillingham I am around nice people and I have become a nice person.
‘At the age of 27 I am having what I should have had at 21 — people putting their arm around you.’
■ 26 — International caps Josh Parker has won for Antigua and Barbuda since making his debut in 2010, scoring five goals
■ 14 — Goals in 70 league appearances since arriving at Gillingham early in 2017