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When confronted with a survey question enquiring what he would be if he wasn’t a footballer, Peter Crouch delivered the quippiest of ‘one-liner’ answers. “A virgin,” the lanky striker replied. It was a typical piece of self-deprecating humour from the man mocked by opposing fans for his gangly deportment, less than elegant appearance and style of play. The self-appointed nickname of ‘Crouchinho’ is another example.
The thing is, that when you’ve had a career in professional footballing spanning two decades, scored more than 200 goals in club football, played 42 times for your country with an admirable scoring rate, netting 22 times for the Three Lions, won the FA Cup and been runner-up in both the Champions League and the World Club Championship, oh yes, and have been married to a Lad’s Mag model for seven years, you probably don’t care overmuch whether people take an offhand comment over seriously.
Across his long career, Crouch has appeared for no less than a dozen different clubs, ranging from a six-game loan period with Dulwich Hamlet, in the Isthmian League, during his first spell with Spurs, to the 2007 Champions League Final with Liverpool. Wherever he has been, however, one thing is consistent whenever he has played, he’s delivered goals.
Signing with Tottenham in 1999, the young Crouch could never convince the then manager George Graham of his worth, and after the two loan spells with Dulwich Hamlet, and then in the Swedish Second Division with IFK Hässleholm, in the summer of 2000, a bid of £60,000 saw him move to QPR. Iain Dowie was in charge of the Loftus Road club at the time and, never a great favourite of football’s aesthetics during his own playing days, he saw something in the raw 19- year-old forward that had escaped Graham’s gaze. Playing in 47 games in his single season with the club, Crouch repaid the manager’s trust with a dozen goals. Sadly, it wasn’t enough to save the club from the drop and the inevitable cull of players to bring in money and cut the wage bill saw Portsmouth take Crouch to the South Coast in exchange for £1.5 million.
Graham Rix was leading Pompey at the time and forecast a great future for Crouch. His own time in the manager’s chair would be short, but the assessment of the player was spot on. Crouch netted a worthy 18 goals in just 37 league starts, almost precisely nailing that standard ‘one-in-every-two-games’ ratio by which strikers are often judged. The increase in the value of the player was underscored when Aston Villa sealed a £5 million deal for Crouch to move to the Midlands in March 2002.
Despite scoring on his debut for the club, Crouch’s time at Villa Park would be the least successful of his career; it’s certainly so when measured in terms of goals, anyway. Graham Taylor had returned to Villa the previous month and clearly saw Crouch as fitting his playing template. They say you should never go back though, and that was certainly the case with Taylor’s return to Villa Park. His second term there was hardly as bright as it had been half-a-dozen years previously, and at the end of the following season, he was gone, replaced by David O’Leary. After only playing in 25 games, netting just twice under Taylor, O’Leary appeared not to be a fan of Crouch, and a three-month loan spell with Norwich took him to East Anglia until Christmas 2003. It was hardly a storming success, and when returning to Villa Park, it was clear that there was little future there for the striker.
It took £2.5 million of Southampton’s money to return Crouch to the South Coast. It’s difficult to know how much of the move was inspired by manager Paul Sturrock, as he was moved out of the club the following month, in favour of Steve Wigley, and Crouch was regarded as back up to James Beattie and Kevin Phillips. His situation would change dramatically in December 2004 though, when Harry Redknapp moved into the manager’s chair. Southampton were struggling and sold Beattie. Crouch was now front line and under Redknapp’s experienced man-management, he flourished, finishing the season with 16 goals from 33 games, admirable when playing with a team bound for relegation. Conversely for Crouch though, things were on the up.
Liverpool had just secured the 2005 Champions League trophy and put in a bid of £7 million for the striker’s services. It must have taken Crouch all of two seconds to weigh up the pros and cons of a move to the European champions, but his career at Anfield appeared to be stuck in neutral for a while. Nineteen matches had passed before he broke his scoring ‘duck’ with the club.
Once he found his groove though, things picked up and in his time with the Reds he notched a number of important and indeed some outstanding goals. A winner against Manchester United is enough to endear any Liverpool striker to the hearts of the Anfield fans and a ‘perfect’ hat-trick against Arsenal was also worthy of mention. Perhaps his two most spectacular strikes though came against Galatasaray and Bolton, both being scissor kicks executed with a perfect balletic grace that belied his reputation. His time on Merseyside would be the zenith of his career and took him to Athens for a Champions League Final against AC Milan. Liverpool would lose the game, but Crouch got on the pitch for the last dozen minutes as Rafa Benítez forlornly chased the game.
Harry Redknapp had been the man to revive Crouch’s career with Southampton, after his disappointing time at Villa Park, and with the redoubtable manager returned to Pompey, he pounced to sign Crouch as soon as it became clear that Liverpool were willing to deal. The fee was a reported £11 million and reflected how the striker’s value had grown over the years. A debut strike at Everton marked his Portsmouth return and things were looking up, but there were massive financial rumblings at the club that would eventually break into an earthquake of disaster. Crouch would only be at Fratton Park for a year. It was, however, time enough to score 16 goals, before an old friend came knocking again.
Harry Redknapp had moved on from Portsmouth to Spurs and wanted Crouch to return to his first club. Now with the financial problems overwhelming the club, Portsmouth accepted £10 million of Tottenham’s money and Crouch would play under Redknapp again. Although not as prolific, and featuring less than he would have liked perhaps, it was still an enjoyable and fruitful time for the striker. He scored the late winner at Manchester City that took Spurs into the Champions League, and onto a run that promised much. Another qualification followed the following season, and Spurs eventually reached the last eight helped by Crouch’s seven goals. They disposed of both Milan clubs on the way, before losing out at the Bernabeu with Crouch seeing red against Real Madrid.
Strangely, in the midst of his goal-scoring run in Europe’s premier club competition, England decided to discard the striker. His last cap came from the bench against France in November of 2010. He scored, but it would be his last cap and goal. One wonders though, had Harry Redknapp got the England gig instead of Roy Hodgson, as had seemed so likely, would there have been a recall for one his favourite players? Some players just suit certain managers, but at international level, there’s often a kind of reluctance to dip into what seems a reversal to less enlightened methods of play. Perhaps Crouch was a victim of that. Having netted 22 goals in just 42 games for the Three Lions, an inability to find the back of the net was clearly not a factor.
At the beginning of the 2011-12 season, Crouch moved to Stoke City where he remains an active part of the squad to this day, although, across the last three years, his playing time has understandably diminished. His record shows that he scored 61 goals for the Potteries club in just over 250 games. It’s a good record by most strikers’ standards and matches up favourably with his career totals of 204 goals in 720 games. For a player often derided by opposing fans for looking unlike a professional footballer, it’s an estimable return. But let the man speak for himself. “I left school when I was 16 and now I am 37, preparing for my 21st pre-season and still loving the game as much as I have always done. Whatever anyone says about me, I can look back on my career and feel very proud of what I have achieved.” And that’s not even mentioning Abbey Clancy! And so lives on the legend of Crouchinho.