Oldham Athletic supporter Tom Griffiths writes about a former Latics player now plying his trade abroad...
If you mention the name Red Star Belgrade to a football fan of a certain age it will evoke memories of the gifted Yugoslav club side that conquered Marseille to become European Champions in 1991. That classic side more than lived up to the tag of 'Brazilians of Europe', containing iconic players such as Prosinecki, Savicevic and Mihaijlovic who went on to have glittering careers across Europe’s top leagues. Sadly, the onset of the Balkan conflict in 1992 and the rising tide of globalisation in the game meant that Red Star never again hit those heights, but they remain a giant of the game in their native Serbia, where they are better known as Crvena Zvezda.
So what is the connection between Red Star Belgrade and Latics? The answer is a simple one: Josh Parker.
A 20-year old Josh Parker joined Latics initially on trial in August 2011, having been released from QPR after just a handful of first team appearances. The pacey forward impressed manager Paul Dickov sufficiently in pre-season to earn a one year contract. Things started brightly for Parker, featuring in the first five matches of the season as a striker in Dickov's side. Although he didn’t register a goal he was beginning to assert himself as an important member of the first team. However, disaster struck for Parker in October when a collision with the Rochdale keeper caused a knee injury that kept him sidelined until December.
On his return from injury Parker found that he was not assured a place in Dickov's starting eleven, with his failure to find the net for Latics undoubtedly a factor. Parker was asked to play out of position, filling in at right back when an injury crisis hit the squad in December – whilst half of his 18 appearances that season came from the bench - including at Anfield in the FA Cup 3rd round. Amidst message board rumours of homesickness and disagreements with the manager he was allowed to leave on loan to join Dagenham & Redbridge in March.
When Latics elected not to offer him a new contract in the summer of 2012, Parker seemed destined to follow so many players before him in drifting down the league structure. Upon leaving Latics, Parker took the first steps in realising that destiny; finding himself without a club for six months before joining Oxford United on a short term deal.
However, in summer 2013 events took an unexpected turn when Parker, with the help of his Slovenian agent, secured a contract with top flight outfit NK Domžale. It was in Slovenia that Parker began to realise the potential that had led him to be held in such high regard as a youngster earlier in his career. The slower pace of the Slovenian game gave Parker more time on the ball and meant that his electrifying pace was even more of an asset.
Parker spent 18 months in the understated surroundings of Domžale, typically playing in front of fewer than 1,000 home fans. However, his return of 14 goals in 42 games from a wide position began to attract the attention of other clubs. With just a few months left on his contract, Red Star Belgrade paid a nominal sum to secure the services of Parker in January 2015.
Upon signing for Red Star, Parker used the press conference to declare his ambitions: "I'm here to be successful and to win the league". He certainly made a blistering start to his career in Serbia, scoring two goals on his home debut and featuring in the Belgrade derby in front of 44,000 passionate fans at Red Star’s atmospheric Marakana stadium. Parker continued to command a first team spot until a falling out with manager Nenad Lalatovic towards the end of the season led to his exclusion from the team as Red Star finished second to their local rivals Partizan in the 2014/15 Super Liga.
The new season brought a new manager, which has coincided with a change of fortunes for Parker. He has played some part in all three games of the 2015/16 season and grabbed two goals in the sensational 6-2 away victory at OFK Belgrade last weekend.
As to whether Parker will flourish in Serbia, only time will tell. The jury is still out for many Red Star supporters who, despite Parker’s hard-working approach, occasionally grow frustrated at the lack of an end product. Nenad Mijaljević is responsible for the @RedStarEnglish Twitter account and is cautiously optimistic about the outlook for Parker in Belgrade: "Personally, I'm expecting more from Josh, especially a bit more composure in the final third. He tends to run into defenders when there is plenty of space to go around them. I suspect that he only lacks confidence and that a few goals would give him chance of a good season at Marakana."