Premium

Meet the real Peter Crouch: The 'goalscorer in a targetman's body' who ran Dirk Kuyt over in a go-kart

Peter Crouch playing for Stoke
Peter Crouch has announced his retirement Credit: reuters

It was his old Liverpool team-mate Jamie Carragher who best defined the essence of what Peter Crouch was as a footballer over a post-match drink at Anfield when the latter was on a fine run in his most prolific Champions League season of 2006-2007.

“You’re a goalscorer in a targetman’s body” was how Carragher explained the conundrum to Crouch, and as the unmistakeable 6ft 7in striker with a nice line in self-deprecation calls time on his 19-year professional career it remains the best summary of the player he was. He has 205 senior career club goals, including 108 in the Premier League, and 22 in just 42 caps for England – more than Kevin Keegan or Roger Hunt or even his friend and free-scoring midfielder Steven Gerrard managed in more than double the appearances.

The goalscorer, the robot, the social media maestro, the author of a bestselling book and host of its accompanying podcast. A footballer capable of recognising the absurdities of the game’s excesses rather than getting lost in the fame vortex. A career spread across 11 different clubs, all of whom developed a fondness for him. He was one of the last England internationals before Jamie Vardy to have played non-league, on loan at Dulwich Hamlet. He played for both Portsmouth and Southampton. He ran Dirk Kuyt over in a go-kart just days before they played in the 2007 Champions League final. Not many can say that.

But it was not always the adulation and the success. He was, for the early part of his career, the very tall, skinny boy whom the opposition crowds called “the freak”. At this point I should declare a personal interest in that I wrote Crouch’s first autobiography with him – not the wildly successful second volume – and earlier still was reporting on the game at which he turned around his professional career with Queen’s Park Rangers in September 2000. It was a goal and an assist against Gillingham but it came at a time in his life when, at 19, he was seriously considering whether football would work out for him. You only had to hear the groan from the QPR fans when he was called over from his warm-up to see that. By the end of that season he was voted QPR’s player of the year.

Peter Crouch is the author of a bestselling book and host of its accompanying podcast Credit: pa

The challenge with being Crouch’s ghostwriter is that all his most memorable lines were his alone, never more so than his famous answer to the question of what he would be were he not a footballer. “A virgin” was Crouch’s instinctive, unforgettable answer and, of course, he went on to be the footballer who married the model Abbey Clancy.

His tweet two summers ago about spending the holidays with family, accompanied by a picture of him feeding giraffes was vintage Crouch – and that lightness of touch, a willingness to embrace what made him different was what forged such a strong connection with the fans. He was the everyman footballer, approachable and funny. But he was also a fierce competitor and an extremely talented player.

The Carragher definition of Crouch plays into how he sees himself as a footballer. As a child, he was a devotee of Channel Four’s Serie A coverage and saw himself as a skills-based player rather than a battering-ram centre-forward. He idolised Gianluca Vialla and Gianfranco Zola, and he supported Chelsea. They tried to persuade him to sign by making him a ball-boy at Stamford Bridge where he was shouted at by Dennis Wise for returning the ball too slowly and then, when Chelsea were winning, too quickly.

As well as all those headers, he scored great goals, the flying scissor-kicks he had practised as a child growing up in Ealing, west London. Curious fact: as a very small child his first words were in Japanese and Mandarin, a consequence of his parents living briefly in Singapore. Having driven to Malaysia for a holiday the young Crouch family were held up at gunpoint by guerrillas associated with the local communist party but emerged unscathed in their Datsun 120. Given his character, one can only assume the young Crouch would have made a very affable international hostage.

Peter Crouch and Abbey Clancy on their wedding day Credit: pa

Although in the dusk of his career, he has become something of a national treasure it was not always that way for Crouch. As he said recently in conversation with the Duke of Cambridge for his mental health project the taunts directed at him early in his career were very painful, for him and his parents, Bruce and Jayne. Bruce has enjoyed a successful career in advertising, with roles including creative director at the Bartle Bogle Hegarty agency, and was never shy in reminding journalists that they written off England’s goalscorer.

It was not just the fans and the media who doubted him, a series of England managers seemed to pursue an anyone-but-Crouch strategy. At various times, Andy Carroll, Jay Bothroyd, and Bobby Zamora among others were picked ahead of him - but Crouch always came back. Then he was criticised for only scoring against weaker sides. His last England goal was against France. He scored in the infamous Euro 2008 qualifying defeat to Croatia in 2007 and was one of England’s best performers in an injury-ravaged team. He was a big factor in qualifying for the 2010 World Cup, whereupon, in South Africa, Fabio Capello opted for a declining Emile Heskey.

All factors in the anger he felt in 2012 when Roy Hodgson asked him to be a reserve for the European championship squad and Crouch withdrew, abruptly ending his England career.

At Liverpool it felt like Rafael Benitez trusted Crouch less the more confident he became. Benitez stuck by him through that run of 18 games at the start of his Anfield career without a goal and then, as he flourished, seemed to play him less. Crouch played just 13 minutes as a substitute in the 2007 Champions League final when it was obvious that Bentiez’s plan that night against AC Milan was not working. They mended their relationship in later years and there was a moment when Benitez, as interim manager at Chelsea, faced the hostility of his own fans near the tunnel at Stoke as the teams walked off at half-time of a game in January 2013. Crouch went over and put a protective arm around his old boss.

Improbably it was at Stoke that he stayed the longest in his career, eight seasons in all. He had never wanted to leave Liverpool but had little choice. The same was the case at Tottenham Hotspur where he scored the winner at Manchester City that got Spurs into the Champions League for the first time. He had done his apprenticeship at Spurs many years earlier, cleaning the boots of David Ginola and driving to training in a second-hand lime-green Volkswagen Polo referred to by his team-mates as “the bogey”.

Peter Crouch never wanted to leave Liverpool but had little choice Credit: pa

A happy soul, for whom no setback was ever too great to bear, he has emerged with a promising post-retirement future working for the BBC and Amazon Prime on their Premier League coverage. As a pundit he will be able to talk with authority having played at the World Cup and in the Champions League, and he will also not shy away from calling out poor performances. As a media insider he can also now finally get to the bottom of what he perceives to be one of the major Crouchian injustices. Why his greatest-ever goal, the touch-turn-volley for Stoke against Manchester City in 2012, never voted BBC goal of the season?

And he may yet surprise us all, as a manager. He always exceeded expectations - or rather the limitations others have placed upon him. With his old pal Shaun Derry from his first spell at Portsmouth as his assistant it would be no stretch to imagine Crouch on the touchline in a smart suit. I once asked him where a man of his size got his clothes from. “Don’t worry,” he said, looking down at some cuffs that did not quite meet his wrists, “I’m still retail.”