Football: Halcyon days for a political footballer

Alan Hubbard finds a Spurs cup hero indulging in his other love

EIGHTEEN YEARS ago Garth Crooks created a significant piece of football history when he became the first black player to score in an FA Cup final. But his instinctively prodded equaliser for Tottenham against Manchester City lingered in the memory for only seven minutes as a major milestone, overshadowed by a mesmerising run from the Argentine Ricky Villa that produced one of the most magical goals ever witnessed at Wembley.

A year later Crooks collected a second FA Cup winners' medal with Tottenham, again after a replay against Queen's Park Rangers, but by then his sights were set on other goals. These days, having won his spurs as a sports broadcaster, Crooks, at 41, has emerged as the ultimate political footballer. Switch on BBC2 most weekdays during the Westminster season and you will see him anchoring the late-night political forum Despatch Box, conversing confidently with pundits and parliamentarians alike.

His smooth adaptation to the role may be helped by the fact that his credentials include a degree in political science. As he says himself, not many people know that. It was obtained while he was still a player, his educational fees subsidised by the Professional Footballers' Associ- ation. "But never in my wildest dreams did I think it would lead to me ending up on any sort of political platform," he said. "I can still hardly believe it."

When we talk of pioneering black sports personalities we tend to forget that Crooks has been there, done it and, almost unobtrusively, broken through barriers that have daunted many of his contemporaries. As well as forging a career in the media with BBC television and GLR radio, he has been chairman of the PFA, and is chairman of the Institute of Professional Sport, an influential voice representing 14 sports which parlays regularly with government and governing bodies.

Additionally he is a member of the English Sports Council and sits on the Lottery distribution panel. He is also the founder and chairman of Sickle Cell Anaemia Relief, the charity arm for an affliction which particularly affects black children.

Not bad for an 11-plus failure whose serious education began after that first FA Cup final appearance. "It was really only then that I came into contact with the media and decided there could be a future in it for me. I did a foundation year at Tottenham Tech and then a BSc degree at North London Poly. They were six great years. I started at 27 and finished at 33, just as I retired from football.

"The Poly was right next to Highbury and I used to tip-toe out every Tuesday and Thursday night, hoping none of the Arsenal fans would see me. None of the other players knew about it. I loved it. Everyone was dead relaxed and it was a real release from the relegation battles I was involved in when I moved to Charlton."

Crooks now visits the House of Commons regularly, mugging up on the latest ministerial manoeuvrings for his Despatch Box appearances. "I had been on the Midnight Hour discussion programme occasionally and it was after one of these that the producer asked me if I would be interested in this new slot. We did a successful pilot programme for what I suppose you could call a parliamentary Match of the Day. I enjoy the cut and thrust of the debate although I wouldn't consider myself political in the accepted sense, certainly not in party terms. Party politics disappoint me - there are so few politicians left who are prepared to fight for what they believe in rather than toe the party line. That's not for me."

So far he has resisted being labelled one of the New Labour Lads. Recently he turned down an invitation to join the image-refurbishing panel of 2000, the Government's so called Committee of Cool. But one engagement he has accepted is to be part of this week's National Police Conference aimed at finding ways to recruit and retain young blacks and Asians.

"At first I found this a bit daunting. Then I thought, blow it, it's too important to duck especially in the light of the Stephen Lawrence inquiry. A lot of progress has been made, but the fight against racism is still an uphill one. I've always been concerned about ethnic minorities being used in just a token way."

Crooks says he likes to play it as he did in an 18-year career with Stoke, Spurs, Manchester United, West Bromwich and Charlton - straight down the middle. He has never been a party animal in any sense of the phrase and is a committed Christian although, unlike one of his illustrious team- mates in those Glory Glory days, he does not wear his gospel on his sleeve. However, he will admit to offering up a quiet prayer or two today when, wearing his media hat, he will watch Tottenham's semi-final at Old Trafford. He senses that some of the style and discipline that was a White Hart Lane hallmark is back in evidence.

"I'm absolutely delighted to see Spurs taken seriously again. You go to Tottenham these days and you can tell immediately that it is being run as a thoroughly professional club with one object - winning. I've had this feeling about Spurs all season. Much of what has happened to George Graham has been fate, almost stranger than fiction - leaving Arsenal, going to Leeds, beating Leeds in the Cup. I can see Spurs reaching Wembley, beating Arsenal in the final and everything that has happened to George being exorcised."

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