Outcasts have point to prove
Leon Knight and Sam Parkin were once united by a dream of playing for Chelsea. The strikers were making their way through the ranks at Stamford Bridge a couple of years apart and thoughts of the Premiership and Champions League abounded.
With Parkin 1,87m and Knight 1,62m, they looked capable of a decent partnership.
When the pair meet on Sunday they will be not only in opposition, but far from their old surrounds.
The afternoon after Chelsea end their season with a Champions League berth secured, Parkin and Knight come face to face in the second division play-offs. Parkin is the leading scorer at Swindon Town and Knight the top marksman at Brighton & Hove Albion. Both have shown there is life after Chelsea. Both want to prove they can cut it in the top flight.
Play-off success would edge them closer after they left Chelsea without a Premiership chance. Parkin never made the first team and Knight’s sole senior appearance came in the Uefa Cup at Levski Sofia, replacing Gianfranco Zola with 29 minutes left.
After various loan spells the two youngsters were let go by Claudio Ranieri. Parkin went in August 2002, Knight a year later.
‘To this day I still think that if he had put me in the side I could have done well,” Knight says. ‘Carlton Cole did it when I was on loan at Sheffield Wednesday [last season] and we have a similar mentality, but it never happened. I went to Sheffield Wednesday at the wrong time. I wanted to play first-team football and not wait around. I’m just glad that I have bounced back the way I wanted. Now I have to push on.”
Knight’s 25 goals make him the second division’s joint leading scorer and he has been a livewire. If his comments sound like a criticism of Ranieri, they are not. There is maturity about the 21-year-old as he discusses the realities of being homegrown at Ranieri’s Chelsea.
‘He’s got players on his hands that need to be playing,” he says. ‘There are youngsters like me, Mika Forssell, Carlton Cole that also want to be playing, but the money [some players] get bought for means they’re going to be playing no matter what. You have to accept that sometimes. That’s football. You can’t complain.
‘It works against you in that you don’t get the breaks you would in the lower divisions, but the experience you get from training with world-class players is priceless. You can’t buy some of the things you see in training. I think it’s helped me this season as well.
‘I’ve learned things from players like [Eidur] Gudjohnsen, [Jimmy Floyd] Hasselbaink and Zola that will always be in my game. I was training most of the time with the first team and sometimes the reserves played the first team. To play against men like William Gallas, Marcel Desailly and John Terry prepares you, so if you step back up you are ready.”
Parkin, like Knight, will surely rise from the second division one way or another. A hat-trick on his Swindon debut set the tone. Tall but clever with his feet, he scored 25 league goals last season in a mid-table team and has 19 this time — three against Brighton — in a much-strengthened squad.
‘This year was going to be a big year for me after the impact I made in my first season,” he says, and his partnership with Tommy Mooney has proved potent.
Parkin and Knight may well hold the key to the play-off, which starts at Swindon.
‘Leon broke into the youth team as I was finishing and into the reserve team as I was on my way out,” Parkin said, ‘but we played a few games together in the reserves. We had a nice partnership and managed to score a few times. He’s going to be the main threat and it will be important to keep him quiet. I don’t want him gloating at the final whistle.”
Nor will Swindon’s goalkeeper Rhys Evans, another Chelsea club-mate.
Parkin (23) stopped his A-levels to sign professionally under Gianluca Vialli but never got the opportunity he craved.
‘Vialli was pretty fair and Ray Wilkins was his right-hand man and they sent me to Millwall at 19 to get experience,” he says. ‘At that stage I thought I had a reasonable opportunity, but as the managers changed and Ranieri came in I became a bit distant from the first team.
‘When Ranieri came in I was on loan at Millwall so it was tough for him to see me. It wasn’t ideal to gain a reputation with the manager.
‘A lot of players were in front of me in the pecking order, like Gudjohnsen, Hasselbaink and Forssell and Leon Knight. There were too many to bother staying. But I had a good education at Chelsea. Hopefully I will be back in the top flight one day.”
Knight shares the sentiment. They are on the right path. —