FOOTBALL: Crouch aims for the heights to fill Beattie void
Southampton v EvertoN: Passion now essential for a giant striker winning round the manager who once sold him
Sunday 06 February 2005
He does an engaging line in self-deprecating humour but knows that, having turned 24 last week, and after spells at Tottenham Hotspur, Queen's Park Rangers, Portsmouth, Aston Villa, and on loan to Norwich City, before moving to St Mary's last summer, it's time for his career to get serious. And it doesn't get any more serious than Southampton's predicament right now.
The irony isn't lost on Crouch that just as he is cementing his place in the top division, the club he now plays for might be about to lose that status for the first time in 27 years. "I do want to stay here for as long as possible," Crouch explains, "because I feel about 30 already. I've moved around so much. I want to stay, first and foremost to keep this club in the Premier League."
A "relegation dogfight", as he calls it, was the last thing on his mind when he was signed for pounds 2m by the then manager, Paul Sturrock. "We were looking to push on from tenth [last season's finish]," Crouch says. "But we started badly and never really recovered. I wasn't expecting that but it's one of those things and we can't think about it. We just need to start winning."
He readily accepted the move from Villa. "I was coming off the bench and so on but that wasn't good enough for me," Crouch says of his time in the West Midlands. "It didn't suit me at all. I got the odd game but I had to move on."
The odd game is what many thought was all he would get at Southampton - especially as James Beattie stayed at the season's start. But it's a measure of Crouch's confidence that he never doubted he would get the opportunity.
"The manager [Sturrock] said that he felt I was good enough to put a lot of pressure on Beatts and Kevin [Phillips]," Crouch says. "He said that there was no way two players could go through a season and play every game, especially front-men. He had confidence in me, but obviously he left straight away and I didn't know what was going to happen."
It seems to be a feature of Crouch's career. "At one time you can be a favourite with the manager and then someone else comes in and discards you," he says ruefully. It was Graham Taylor who had taken him to Villa for pounds 5m - only to leave the next season - and the man who sold him from Portsmouth, just 48 hours after he took over, of course, was Harry Redknapp, now the Southampton manager.
"It might have played on my mind a bit," Crouch admits when asked how he felt when Redknapp arrived, "but as soon as Harry came in he said, `The reason I sold you is not because you are a bad player'. He said it was just because someone was willing to pay a lot of money. And if you look at the money he spent at Portsmouth he totally changed the side from when I was there and made it into an established Premiership team."
Redknapp, with a flurry of transfer-window signings, has tried to do a similar rebuilding act with the pounds 6m he received from Everton for Beattie. The two sides meet today at St Mary's. "I spoke to James and he's looking forward to it," Crouch says. The two are friends. "He's a good player, a goalscorer, someone you need to be wary of."
Nevertheless, Crouch admits that he had expected Beattie to leave. "I always felt in the back of my mind that Beatts would move on in January and obviously that was the case," he says. "It has opened a gap and I'm looking to fill it, to prove to the manager that he doesn't need to bring someone in and that the replacement is here already."
With four goals in five games, it's working, even if the team have continued to struggle. Redknapp's first move after taking over was to pick Crouch after the player had been ignored by Sturrock's successor, Steve Wigley. Indeed, Crouch's signing added to the pressure on the Scot, with claims that Southampton would revert to more direct football.
"Anyone who watches me play week in, week out knows that's not the case," says Crouch emphatically. "As soon as I join a club the fans might be thinking, `Oh, we're going to play the long ball'. But as soon as they see me play they know that's not right. You can play the ball into my feet and we can take it from there."
He has the surest of touches but his height, unsurprisingly, always seems to be an issue. "I think without a doubt people look at me and my physique and being so tall," Crouch says. "I've always just enjoyed playing football and it's never really got to me. I've had it all my life. I've always been the tallest, even at school. I think I was 5ft 9in at birth. No, I've always steadily grown. It's just one of those things. I've learned to live with it and I enjoy it."
He's also more aware of what he can and cannot do. "If someone wants two quick strikers and getting in behind them, and so on, then they are not going to play me. That's obvious," Crouch says. "But there are other managers who like to play myself with someone like Kevin running off me, bringing others into play."
Redknapp hopes Crouch can create the same kind of partnership that Niall Quinn enjoyed with Phillips at Sunderland. To do that, Crouch has also had to find a bit more aggression. His time at Villa gave him that. "I just think I wasn't going to stand for not being in the team again," Crouch says. "Also I feel a lot stronger now and the two years I had there have really helped me grow. I just feel better and, without a doubt, I've improved. Hopefully that is showing."
His confidence certainly is, especially in the way he took the winning injury-time penalty against Portsmouth last weekend to knock his former club, and Southampton's all-too-bitter rivals, out of the FA Cup. "Once I had the ball no one was taking it off me," says Crouch, who is not a regular from the spot. "I saw the manager giving it this [he waves his hands frantically in front of him]."
The striker had been emboldened by a penalty competition he had taken part in during the week, in which he beat a former Southampton player 15-12. That player was Matt Le Tissier. If Crouch can leave anywhere near the same mark on the South Coast as that local legend he will indeed be able to walk tall.
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