Crouch the 'freak' can be an England cult hero

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The locals may not be the only people who think Peter Crouch is more suited to the Chicago Bulls, the Windy City's NBA team, than a soccer XI but when the Southampton striker stretches an England shirt over his 6ft 7in frame today it could be a perfect fit.

The locals may not be the only people who think Peter Crouch is more suited to the Chicago Bulls, the Windy City's NBA team, than a soccer XI but when the Southampton striker stretches an England shirt over his 6ft 7in frame today it could be a perfect fit.

Crouch is still greeted, at Premiership grounds, by chants of "freak" but the focus on his height obscures the all-round qualities of this quiet 24-year-old. Good on the deck as well as in the stratosphere, Crouch, once he makes his international debut against the United States, may prove as hard to shift as a redwood.

"I'm definitely unique," he said after training yesterday. "I bring something different to the table. I've got an aerial advantage but I can play as well. You don't have to lump it up to me. I've always felt comfortable with the ball at my feet. I hold the ball up and lay it off. Plus, I've scored more this season with my feet than my head."

It is a view echoed by the man who brought him into football, Gerry Francis. Francis, initially acting on the recommendation of Des Bulpin, his youth director at Queen's Park Rangers, gave Crouch his debut for Rangers five years ago having previously taken him from Loftus Road to Tottenham, then bought him back.

"I'm not surprised England have called him up," said Francis. "I think you'll find he'll be a big name in the game. You get the jokes about his size but he can play. He reminds me of Teddy Sheringham with his ability and thinking.

"He's not the quickest until he gets into his stride but he has great technique," Francis added. "You can put it into his feet, he has a great touch, and he's scored some fantastic volleys. He's got the build of Niall Quinn and no one can handle him if he jumps.

"He'll be very hard to play against if he fills out and gets stronger. Some international teams will not know what has hit them and a really good striker working off him will get a lot of goals."

Only two things would seem to count against Crouch, who was capped at junior and Under-21 level, becoming an England fixture. One is his the status of his club - Sven Goran Eriksson has not watched a First Division/Championship fixture in more than four years as England coach and few believe his promises to start now. The other is a fragile confidence, perhaps in part a consequence of years of abuse about his height.

"He needs an arm around him," added Francis. "He needs to know you believe in him. But playing for England can only improve his confidence, as will the goals he's scored [16 in a truncated Southampton season]."

As for his future, after five clubs in six seasons, plus a loan spell at Norwich, he admits some stability would be good, but few expect him to start next season outside the Premiership. "I'm going to have to speak to the chairman and Harry [Redknapp] when I'm back," he said. "It's difficult because now I've been involved with England I want to stay in the squad and be a part of it all the time. It would be difficult for me going back into the Championship, there's no denying it. I'm not going to lie because it would be hard. But at the same time it would be nice to settle somewhere and Southampton have been great to me."

He certainly found Redknapp more of a believer than David O'Leary who inherited him from Graham Taylor at Aston Villa. "He didn't fancy me. That was obvious. Darius Vassell and Juan Pablo Angel were his front two. I scored a few goals but I was always dropped. I can remember scoring two against Leicester and then being dropped for the next game. Fair enough, Angel scored a lot of goals that season, but it made me realise my future lay elsewhere.

"I don't have a grudge. Playing for England isn't about proving people wrong, it's about proving people right, the people who had faith in me like Gerry Francis and Harry."

The only player in the game comparable to Crouch is Jan Koller of the Czech Republic. Koller was also derided when he first came on the scene but is now a respected and feared striker for Borussia Dortmund in the Bundesliga and shone in Euro 2004. Koller is more physical than Crouch but the latter may have the better touch. As long as England do not fall into the trap of hitting the ball early and long too often, the man Arsène Wenger scornfully described as "a basketball player" could become an England cult hero.

Giant potential: The rise of Peter Crouch

30 January 1981

Born in Macclesfield

August 1998

Signs professional forms with Tottenham Hotspur

July 2000

Moves to Queen's Park Rangers for £60,000

July 2001

Signs for Portsmouth for £1.5m

March 2002

Signed by Graham Taylor for Aston Villa for £5m

September 2003

Goes to Norwich City on loan for three months

July 2004

Moves to Southampton for £2m

2004-5

Premiership 18 games (6 as sub), 12 goals

Carling Cup 1 game, 0 goals

FA Cup 5 games, 4 goals

England U-21s

6 caps, 1 goal

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