But for the angry knocking of the First World War, the forward Bobby Parker may have become regarded as one of the greatest forwards English football has ever witnessed. War cruelly destroyed his career in two ways: first, by extracting a four-year chunk of it while in his mid-twenties pomp; second, by giving him an injury from which he never fully recovered. Instead we can only reflect on a glorious 18-month period in which he changed the course of Everton history following years of underachievement, giving later generations of Evertonians plenty to ponder as to what might have been.
He was born in Glasgow, just days after Everton secured their first League Championship in March 1891, and made his way as a professional footballer at Ibrox. He was a highly rated if seldom called upon prodigy and understudy to Rangers legend Willie Reid when Everton – the perennial nearly men of the era – came calling for his services in November 1913. Rangers were reluctant to sell, even when a fee of £1500 was offered. Lengthy negotiations went on between the clubs and, perhaps surprisingly, a fee of £800 was agreed with John Fulton, an unheralded left back signed the previous May from Greenock Morton and who was still to play for the first team, also heading north. It was among the finest bargains in Everton history.
Goals had been hard to come by all season: just 20 in 14 matches, shared between 12 different players. It was hoped Parker could rectify this problem. ‘At last Everton have succeeded in their quest for Parker, the clever centre forward of Glasgow Rangers,’ recorded the Liverpool Courier with some relief. ‘Though Parker was only a reserve player for Glasgow Rangers he had few superiors in Scotland, and the brilliance of Reid alone kept him out of the first team. He has a splendid shot, and his record certainly appears to confirm this, seeing that already this season he has three “hat-tricks” to his credit. Last season Parker played in 14 League matches for the Rangers, and found the net in almost every one of them. He is 22 years of age, 5ft 8in height, and weighs 11 and half-stone.’
And yet when he made his debut against Sheffield Wednesday, scoring Everton’s goal in a 1-1 draw, the same paper was quick to criticise. ‘Like other Scottish players who have come to Everton, he was not quick enough at times,’ they sniped. ‘It would be unfair to judge him by his first turnout, and he certainly had a tremendous obstacle in McSkimming, the Sheffield centre half. He did secure a goal, and that was more than any of the others could do.’ A fortnight later the same paper whined: ‘Everton also were weak at centre-forward, for Parker not only showed little or no resource himself, but he was anything but a good general, showing poor judgment in distributing his attack.’
How foolish they were to jump to such hasty conclusions. On Christmas Day Everton travelled to Old Trafford to face Manchester United. Parker scored the only goal of the game. A day later at Goodison, in the return fixture, he scored a hat-trick as Everton romped to a 5-0 win. ‘There was no better player on the field than Parker, the Courier eulogised. ‘He played magnificent football. His long passes to the wings were always well judged and accurately placed, and he was always alert for openings.’
Parker’s stunning Christmas performances set the example he would follow over the next 18 months. He finished the 1913/14 season with 17 goals from 24 appearances and hopes laid firmly on his shoulders at the start of the 1914/15 season. ‘Parker did well in the short time he was at Goodison Park last season – a resumption of that form is hoped for;
, should it materialise, and his colleagues get into proper understanding with one another, then the supporters can confidently look forward to a successful time,’ reported the Football Echo. ‘If all goes well, then perhaps when April arrives a share of the honours so long over due will find their way to Walton.’
These would be prophetic words indeed. Six times since the Football League’s formation just 26 years previously Everton had finished league runners-up. In 1905 they finished with 47 points from 34 games, but still ended up a point behind champions Newcastle. In 1909 and 1912 they ended up with 46 points in an expanded division. But in 1914/15 the same tally was enough to secure the long-elusive crown. Without question Parker’s incredible total of 36 goals from 35 games was the key to Everton’s success. It included one four-goal haul, four hat-tricks and five braces.
And yet Everton’s success was overshadowed by the war in Europe. Even the Football Echo shoved Everton’s title triumph to the back pages, with the front of the paper dominated by drawings of the battle front at Ypres.
Unlike many of his fellow champions, Parker left almost immediately to join the fighting. But he was seriously wounded in the final year of the war and dispatched home to convalesce with a bullet lodged in his back. Everton gave him time to recover and he returned for the 1919/20 season. He made his long-awaited comeback in December 1919 in an Anfield derby. Parker, predictably, scored – in a 1-3 defeat – but the Daily Post meanly reported: ‘Parker was hardly a success.’
He remained at Goodison until May 1921, his outings restricted but always peppered with goals. He joined Nottingham Forest for £500 and later resettled in Ireland. In 1927/28, while his successor at Goodison, Dixie Dean, was making history, so was Parker as manager of Bohemians, managing them to the ‘Clean Sweep’: the League of Ireland, FAI Cup, Shield and Leinster Senior Cup.
The war injury increasingly took its toll, however, but Everton never forgot a man who had brought them greatness. The Football Echo reported soon after the end of the Second World War: ‘Bobby Parker today lies at his Dublin home, a cripple through a hole in his back – the last-but-one war caused this. Everton FC, to their everlasting glory, have never said a word about it, but I will tell you they have pensioned Bobby Parker all these years – a good deed done, without stealth or advertisement.’