The Big Interview: Peter Crouch

Peter Crouch is a lucky man. And he’s the first to admit it.

Aged 33, the striker is clearly content with life, and why not?

Crouch has just completed a fine season with Stoke City, in which he helped the club to a ninth-placed finish – their best in the Premier League.

And while his days as an international might be behind him, there is no sense his career in the top flight might be slowing down.

Whatever happens now, Crouch can reflect on a decade plying his trade at the top level in which he has earned several multi-million pound moves and earned the trappings which go with it.

But despite having been transferred for upwards of £40m and being a recognised figure in public, there is a down-to-earth aura around Crouch which he has carried through his career.

In spite of his towering height, he’s always appeared to be quite grounded.

“I wasn’t 17 and then suddenly became a superstar, I had to work at it,” he responds when I ask why that might be.

We are sat at a table in the function room of an upmarket Midlands golf club. Crouch is about to play in a charity event but, due to Stoke’s training schedule, has arrived late.

It means any hope of a leisurely chat over sandwiches and a pot of tea has flown out of the window.

Yet despite his tee-off time rapidly approaching, Crouch is happy to talk about all aspects of his career.

That includes the beginning.

Crouch has played on the biggest stage – two World Cups and a Champions League final – yet he took the scenic route to the top after starting out at as a teenager with Tottenham. It was while at Spurs that he had a loan spell at Dulwich Hamlet FC in the Isthmian League.

It is an experience he has never forgotten and one which, he says, helped add perspective when things started to go his way. “That’s when you realise you don’t want to play at that level, you want to play in the Premier League,” he says. “That kind of experience helps, it drives you on.

“Why do I seem down to earth? I think it was easy for me because I went on loan to Sweden (he spent time with IFK Hasslehom, also on loan) and to Dulwich and I was sort of grounded.

“I had to work at it. I had to get up there. I was 24 when I made my England debut and obviously things came a lot slower for me.

“That is probably why I can go on for a lot longer. I don’t feel like I am anywhere near the end of my career yet.”

The Dulwich loan came at the request of Crouch himself as he struggled to make an impact at White Hart Lane.

If, by comparison, Hamlet’s Edgar Kail Way ground might appear a quaint backwater it proved anything but for the young Crouch, who experienced men’s football for the first time.

It wasn’t just the physicality but being watched by a crowd which was a new experience. While Dulwich might not have packed in 35,000 every week, their support was every bit as passionate.

Crouch, with his physique, was an easy target for the hecklers.

“When the crowd is small and you can hear what they are saying, it’s a lot worse,” he said.

“I wasn’t even playing in the reserve team at Tottenham at the time. Les Ferdinand was there, they had Chris Armstrong and I wasn’t getting a game, it was difficult for me to get a look in.

“I had to get away and I went to Dulwich. I loved it – it was good, proper football. Everyone wanted to win down there and I think it made me the player I am today.

“I realised how lucky I am and how fortunate I was to be playing at the level I was with Spurs and what a chance I had ahead of me.”

While Crouch would eventually return to Spurs later in his career, his immediate future led to Loftus Road and Queens Park Rangers – the team he supported as a boy – in a £60,000 transfer.

The 2000-01 season proved to be something of a breakthrough. In his first campaign in senior football he scored 10 goals and, though it was not enough to save the Rs from relegation to the Second Division, it earned Crouch a £1.5m move to Portsmouth the next summer.

He scored eight minutes into his debut at Molineux – the start to the most prolific six months of his career as he netted 17 goals in 33 appearances.

By the following March he was on the move again, this time back to the Premier League, the Midlands and Villa.

When he scored on his Villa Park debut, heading home the leveller in a 1-1 draw with Newcastle, stardom beckoned.

But it was a switch the 6ft 7in forward now admits came too soon.

“I don’t think I was quite ready for it,” he says. “I moved to Villa when I was 21 and it obviously took me a bit more time to develop.

“I don’t think I was ready for the Premier League until I was 23 and I think Villa came a little too soon for me, which was a shame.

“It’s a great club and I still made loads of friends in the area.”

Crouch is still affectionately referred to as ‘Rodney Trotter’ among the Villa faithful despite netting just six goals in his season-and-a-bit at Villa Park, perhaps testimony to his honest nature.

Villa finished the 2003-2004 season sixth under David O’Leary and when Crouch, who had been a peripheral figure, was sold to Southampton that summer there were few murmurs of complaint among supporters.

But his departure, no matter how logical a decision it appeared at the time, has become one of the great What if? moments among fans.

Few players leave Villa at such a young age and go on to be successful, but Crouch will have supporters wondering for years what might have happened if management had shown more patience.

The Saints were relegated in his only season on the south coast but on a personal level the campaign was a huge success for Crouch, who bagged 17 goals and proved himself as a striker of note at the top level.

Just a year after Villa let him go for £2m, his price had more than trebled as Liverpool snapped him up for £7m. His price tag on his next three moves – to Portsmouth, Spurs and then Stoke, would total £28m.

Crouch had arrived and the next five years were very successful as he reached the final of the Champions League with Liverpool and won the FA Cup with Portsmouth, the latter still, he reveals, the best highlight of his career to date. “There have been some great moments but for me growing up the FA Cup was the one, so to win that I think was probably the best,” he says.

With success came celebrity and fame – somewhat helped by his robot dance celebration.

Towards the end of the interview he jokes that, following wife Abbey Clancy’s victory on Strictly Come Dancing, he can no longer call himself the best dancer in the family.

Within a year of leaving Villa, he’d also made his first appearance for the national side, making his debut against Colombia during the end-of-season tour of the USA.

It would be the first of 42 caps – the last coming in 2010. His record of 22 goals for the Three Lions leaves his scoring ratio at better than one every two games.

The final goal came in what looks destined to be his final game – a 2-1 friendly defeat to France in December 2010.

While he will never turn his back on England, he concedes to long talking about his international career in the past tense.

“I think those days have gone,” he said. “I’ll never say never, I’d love to play for my country again at any point in my career.

“I’ll always offer myself up but the call has not come for a few years so it is not something I look to.”

Roy Hodgson’s decision to focus on youth for Brazil meant Crouch was never seriously in contention, but his name was mentioned earlier this year, partly because of his excellent form for Stoke.

With Mark Hughes looking to implement a more attractive style after taking over from Tony Pulis, Crouch has flourished. He hit 10 goals over the course of the campaign and freely admits he is currently loving his football.

“Maybe in previous seasons I had to sacrifice myself a little bit, certainly away from home when I have been up there on my own and we have tried to pack the midfield and make us difficult to break down,” he said.

“I think last year – and you only have to look at when we won 4-1 at Villa, we played some good stuff and were an attacking threat.” The club’s decision to sack Pulis last May and replace him with Hughes did not go down well with supporters at the time.

Few would now claim it was the wrong decision but Crouch is keen for the building job done by Pulis not to be forgotten.

“Tony Pulis did a fantastic job for the club,” he adds. “We were sorry to see him go but the new manager has come in with fresh ideas. It’s a new way of playing and it’s something we are all enjoying.

“Obviously the last manager left us in very good shape and the new manager has taken it on to a new level.

“You have to build success and I feel they have done that. They have made it a very stable club and it’s a good place to be at the moment, so long may it continue.

“It’s a very passionate fanbase. The crowd, particularly at home, are fantastic when the place is rocking when we are playing well.

“The way we finished the season was exciting and you can tell the place is buzzing, the city as well.”

Crouch himself appears to be buzzing and this is perhaps why he baulks when asked if he has considered what he might do when his playing career comes to an end.

“I genuinely don’t believe I am coming to the end to be honest,” he said.

“I’m really enjoying it, training every single day and not missing a minute.

“I’m enjoying it so I would like to go on for a few years yet.

“I think I have never had pace, so I can’t lose it!

“I have always relied on other attributes. I’m really enjoying my football and hopefully that continues for a few years yet.”

Crouch admits he would love to follow the same path as former Southampton strike partner and Albion forward Kevin Philips, who has just retired aged 40, having helped Leicester City regain their place in the Premier League.

“He’s incredible,” he says, when asked whether Phillips is a source of inspiration. “I look at people like Kevin and I don’t see why it can’t be done. I’d like to continue for as long as I can.

“As long as I’m enjoying it and I’m offering the team something, then I will continue. That was certainly the case last season.”

There is also another driving force behind Crouch’s desire to remain at the top level – and it is all to do with his goalscoring record.

In total, Crouch has 88 Premier League goals to his name and another strong season next year could see him become just the 26th player to hit the 100-goal mark.

He has one year left on his deal at the Brittania and even though he wants to play for several years to come, it is a record he wants sooner rather than later.

Phillips is again an inspiration, along with Dion Dublin, who joined the 100-goal club while Crouch was a Villa player.

“I remember when Dion did it and how pleased he was,” he said.

“Ever since then, I thought to myself: ‘You know, that’s a target you can aim for.’ It would be a great achievement for me.

“Another couple of seasons, perhaps double figures next year, then that will be that. It’s something I have looked to, I can’t deny it.

“I have been lucky enough to enjoy a good career and you reach a certain age and, if you keep going, then these milestones can come around.

“All the players who have scored 100 goals in the Premier League are ones I look up to. Part of a club.

“They are fantastic players. If I can add my name to the list it would be incredible.

“If you’d told me when I was a kid at Spurs that I would have it in my sights, had played in World Cups and won just under 50 caps for England, I’d have taken it, no question. I wouldn’t have believed you, but I’d have taken it.”

Crouch may not be the first to reach the target but, should he manage it, he will be the only former Dulwich Hamlet man to do so.

A lot has happened since his non-league introduction to senior football but, essentially for Crouch, the game – and his outlook upon it – has not changed.

“It’s not just a job,” he says. “I still love it, still really enjoy it and feel I am really privileged.

“I feel like it’s the best job in the world and I will continue to do it for as long as I can, with a smile on my face.”

Peter Crouch was talking at the second annual FootieBugs golf day, which was organised in aid of Cure Leukaemia. Founded by former Villa star Lee Hendrie, FootieBugs is the UK’s leading children’s football based activity offering classes for children aged three to nine years. Visit footiebugs.com for more information.

By Matt Maher