This ‘exclusive’ interview with Irish international Troy Parrott originally featured in the Guardian
18 April 2020, Nagoya, Japan
18-year-old Troy Parrott cut a relaxed figure as we met at the Maruya Honten Meieki restaurant, said to be the finest Unagi eatery in downtown Nagoya.
The fact that Parrott suggested this location as a great place to meet gives you an indication that the youngster on loan from Tottenham Hotspur is throwing himself into Japanese culture and is determined to make the most of his time in Japan – unagi is a freshwater eel used in many traditional Japanese dishes.
“It all happened really quickly,” Parrott said talking of his shock move from playing U23 Premier League football that Tuesday night before being unveiled as Lee-Ah Wenger’s first signing at Nagoya Grampus on the Thursday. “If I am being honest, I’d not really heard of the club – we’d all heard about Arsene Wenger’s son becoming a manager in Japan but it hadn’t really clicked that this was the club until my agent told me more”.
It’s thought the knowledge levels were mutual. Lee-Ah Wenger had heard of Troy Parrott in passing, but bringing one of the hotter talents in North London to Nagoya wasn’t exactly top of his list. It was the quick thinking of Parrott’s agent, Dave Moon, that meant the deal could even be considered.
Moon felt there was an opportunity given the media furore over ‘the son of Arsene Wenger’ being in management and with the previous Nagoya Grampus link to Spurs through Gary Lineker, believed there was enough there to make the move worthwhile for Parrott and for Wenger Jr.
A call was put into Wenger Jr’s agent initially, before being referred to Nagoya’s Director of Football Masayuki Omori and the idea was finally relayed to the Nagoya manager.
Initially, Wenger Jr was believed to be reluctant. Nagoya needed another striker to play alongside former Brazilian international Jo, but ideally one more experienced and with less of a cultural shift to move to Japan.
Moon persisted, sending over the following graphic by WhatsApp and reassuring Wenger Jr that Parrott had thrived since moving from Dublin at aged 15 to join Tottenham’s academy.
The data, followed up by a quick call to get a feel for whether the player would be interested in a year in the J-League was enough for Wenger Jr to move quickly – the European window was open and many English Championship clubs were being linked to Parrott, including Marcelo Bielsa’s Leeds United.
“It’s true, I also spoke to Bielsa – well, I spoke to him through his translator. He wanted me to go to Elland Road to play from the left, alongside Eddie (Nketiah) who I’ve played against for years at youth level. When Wenger said he wanted me to play through the middle and be the player who finishes the moves, well…” Parrott was clearly taken by the opportunity to lead the young coach’s front line at such an early point in his career.
The first month or so did not come easy for Parrott. He failed to find the net in his first six games as he struggled to adapt to the league, his role in the team and their style of play.
“Yeah, it was tough at first – really tough. Wenger speaks good English, which helped me, but nobody else at the club speaks English and I knew no Japanese at all”. Parrott has since been sent on an intensive course by the club and was more than capable of ordering our food to accompany the interview. “But, slowly things started to click – I understood more about how the team plays and what the coach wants me to do, the runs he wants me to make, the positions he wants me to get into.”
Nagoya play a direct, high-tempo, high-pressing game. Whilst Parrott was no stranger to being asked to defend from the front having worked with Mauricio Pochettino at Spurs, the attacking style of play employed by Wenger was different to what he was used to.
“I guess we play a little bit like Atletico Madrid or even the Leicester side that won the Premier League. We are very solid defensively, and we look to break fast. Yeah, I guess I am almost like the Jamie Vardy in the side, in some ways…”
Parrott spends most of his 90 minutes playing on the shoulder of the last man, looking to run in behind whenever Nagoya right-back Yutaka Yoshida gets the ball or whenever their talented left-footed playmaker Joao Schmidt looks up to ping it in behind.
“And I supposed Joao is a little bit like Danny Drinkwater…”
Eventually, Parrott got his first goal – bundling one in after a goalmouth scramble following a Nagoya corner against FC Tokyo. He followed this up with a brace against Kashima Antlers before netting the winning goal against Gamba Osaka, top of the table at the time to send Nagoya top of the J-League.
That very same evening he got told he was being called up to the full Irish squad by Mick McCarthy, as a late replacement for the injured James Collins. Parrott impressed enough in training to make his international debut against Northern Ireland before heading back to Japan and increasing his goal tally to six for the season.
“It’s amazing out here, I do love it. It’s a great city, the fans are brilliant. We have a good dynamic in the squad – we know we are not the prettiest side to watch but we are starting to wear that as our badge, you know? Clean sheets are starting to mean as much to me as goals, and I never thought I’d say that”.
Nagoya’s defensive record is the bedrock on which their campaign is being built. They’ve already amassed seven clean sheets in eleven games and is the reason why they were able to spend a brief moment at the top of the J-League. Currently, they sit third.
But what is the future for Troy Parrott? Does he worry that being out of sight might mean being out of mind to Pochettino?
“I have to be realistic. I’m 18. Harry Kane has the main striker’s position if the gaffer wants to play one up top. If he plays two, I’m up against the likes of Sonny or Lucas. If I think about competing on the left, I’m up against Sonny, Erik, maybe Eriksen or Lo Celso. I can also play as a ten, but then so does Dele, Eriksen or Lo Celso. I know I can get a chance at Spurs, eventually. I have to be patient, and this experience in Japan is only going to make me a better player”.
As for Nagoya, they have already surprised many people in the J-League with their performances. Appointing a 23-year-old manager, even if he is the son of Arsene Wenger, was a curveball, but they have delivered some excellent results so far. If Parrott can stay fit and he isn’t run into the ground, he is on for 15-20 J-League goals this season and a team with a striker delivering those numbers could well be on for the Asian Champions League next season – let alone a pop at the title itself.
“Look, I don’t know if we are going to challenge for the title. Sure, we went unbeaten in our first 12 matches, a club record. But then we come up against Andres Iniesta and David Villa at Vissel Kobe and bam, record comes to an end. And they were 16th going into the match. It’s a tight league. Before we kicked a ball, people were saying mid-table would be an achievement. I think we can do better than that now….”
And with that, Parrott shook hands and headed off into the Nagoya evening – a well-travelled young man who has already scored more J-League goals than Gary Lineker and David Villa combined.