It is Thursday afternoon in one of the banqueting suites at White Hart Lane and Peter Crouch is telling a group of 10-year-olds from Haringey schools that when he was their age he liked reading the books of Roald Dahl. Those among the children who love football, and have read some Dahl themselves, are making an obvious connection: this is one Big Friendly Giant they can believe in.
It is less than 24 hours since Crouch scored two goals for England against Egypt at Wembley and the kids are clearly thrilled that the unmistakeable character they know from television is now talking to them about the benefits of reading. The morning's newspapers are discussing whether he now deserves to start for England; the Tottenham striker is the man of the moment.
It has been a great night for Crouch, one in which he took his international goalscoring record to 20 in 37 caps, only 17 of which have been starts. The most crucial statistic is his ratio of goals to minutes on the pitch He averages a goal every 102 minutes played for England, superior to Wayne Rooney (one every 171 minutes), Jermain Defoe (132 minutes) and even the great Jimmy Greaves (117 minutes), whose picture adorns the halls and landings of the stadium.
Today in the FA Cup quarter-finals Crouch faces Fulham, the club that he almost agreed to join in the summer until Tottenham stepped in with an offer that he could not resist. Wednesday night's victory over Egypt and Crouch's place in it have opened a debate that will follow him around every stadium until the end of the season: should he, rather than Emile Heskey, start for England?
Crouch is a nice bloke and he is not about to trash Heskey but the perception of him as easygoing, happy-to-be-along-for-the-ride with England is way off the mark. He cares passionately about his international goalscoring record. He wants to be in the line-up for the first World Cup game against the United States on 12 June. And after five years with England he has no doubt that he belongs there.
"I know I have been in and out [of the team] really but I have always thought that when I played I have done well enough to start games," he says. "Obviously it is up to the manager. I have been in pretty much every squad since 2005 so I do feel established in the England set-up and I would like to be more established in the team rather than just in the squad. That is hopefully something I can achieve.
"I am very proud of my record for England. For some reason I feel very, very confident when I play for England. I don't know whether it is because I am playing with great players. I believe that they are going to create chances for me and whenever I play I always seem to take them. My goal record is good, and as long as I play I always feel that I am going to score in an England shirt.
"Certainly with England it is about form at that particular moment in time. If someone is in form the nation is calling for them to be involved which is understandable – if you are playing well and scoring goals you deserve to be in. I always felt that when I play for England I have never let anyone down and I think that will always be the case."
Not having let England down is a theme that comes up more than once. Crouch is too polite to say that, were it not for some abysmal luck along the way, things might have been very different, like the Euro 2008 qualifying defeat to Croatia at Wembley in which he scored a great goal. Do the same selection issues dominate talk among the England players?
"I think it is an unwritten rule – [we] don't talk about it," Crouch says. "We all get on really. Certainly away from the pitch we are all good mates. From my point of view there is never any bad feeling if someone gets in ahead of you. You want to do better than them and impress and get the shirt but when you come off the field [it is different]. I think we have a good team spirit with England.
"Of course if you didn't have that [desire to be in the team] then you shouldn't be in football really. If you just enjoy meeting up and nicking a cap five minutes for the end, you shouldn't be in the game. It's not about that is it? It's about starting games, every striker wants to start games, score goals, wear the No 9 shirt. Everyone who plays for England is the same. They have the drive and hunger to be playing.
"He [Fabio Capello] doesn't give much away to be honest. I didn't know who was going to be playing right until two hours before kick-off. He names the team and there are always one or two surprises. He has talked to me on the training ground about a few things about improving my game. As for whether you are going to be on the plane, or whether you are going to be starting – I don't think anyone knows that.
"When you play for England everyone has an opinion. They have an opinion on who should play where, what formation – unless you are set in stone on the team-sheet like Wayne Rooney. That is part and parcel of football. You have to shut yourself away from it. At the end of the day, it is all opinions but only one man matters – that's Fabio Capello. If I can do enough to impress him then it will be a proud moment for me.
"At the last World Cup if you had asked me about how England would do I would have said, 'Yeah, we have a great chance. We can do it.' Probably this year we would rather keep quiet, talk it up as little as possible because we did underachieve last time. People were saying this and that about the 'golden generation' and how we should win it. This year we would rather shut up and go out there and do the business."
Crouch has come a long way from the kid who never got his chance as a YTS boy at Spurs and was sold on the cheap to Queen's Park Rangers ten years ago. Before then he went on loan to Dulwich Hamlet in the Isthmian League and subsequently with the likes of QPR and Portsmouth he had a tough baptism in the Championship where he was often targeted by fans because of his unusual height.
"I was probably late developing physically," Crouch says, "I was too busy growing up rather than out! I developed as a player later than a lot of other players. I got a lot stronger, probably around 23, 24 and I believe that now will be the best years of my career. I'm now 29, I feel physically good and I think into my 30s I will be fine to go on for a long, long time.
"I believe my years now will be the best of my career. Now I feel a lot stronger, fitter. When you are older you have a lot more experience. That is probably why in the early days I wasn't quite ready. When I hit 24, that was when I started to really make an impact. Now I feel settled in a fantastic side at Tottenham. We are going forward in a great team and I feel established as an international.
"When you play for England you have to be thick-skinned and tough because everything you do is going to be scrutinised. For every England game there are five or six pages in the papers – just on one 90 minute performance. Some players only get a half and they are scrutinised on how they perform. You need a thick skin. When I look back to the early days that helped me I feel I can take on anyone."
The Tottenham Christmas party that caused such a stir in December now looks like rather small change compared to the controversy that has enveloped the England team over the Wayne Bridge saga and John Terry's subsequent sacking as captain. It is the kind of topic that causes awkward shuffling of feet amongst Terry's England team-mates.
"Everyone was getting on with their jobs and totally focused on the game," Crouch says. "So much has been said and written. It's been put to bed. The manager has made his decision on the captaincy and once that was done, that was it. There has been a line drawn under it and we are looking forward to the World Cup. We don't want any distractions.
"We all know that we get extremely well-paid for doing a fantastic job and we are in an extremely privileged position. I think it is a case of not being seen to abuse that and the majority of players don't. Certainly those of us in the England squad realise we are in a privileged position and we try to act accordingly."
Crouch likes to joke that his old youth-team friend Ledley King is one of only three people still left at White Hart Lane from 10 years ago and certainly the FA Cup, which he won with Liverpool in 2006, would be a great way to end the season at his new club. But it is what waits for him beyond then in South Africa that will be the real measure of his career.
Peter Crouch was attending an event hosted by the Tottenham Hotspur Foundation at White Hart Lane with Haringey schoolchildren in celebration of World Book Day.
'He's just like Owen, but a different size'
Jamie Carragher, Crouch's former Liverpool team-mate, believes that he is unfairly judged as a targetman rather than a goalscorer because of his height. "For me, he's like Michael Owen even though they are a completely different size," Carragher told talkSPORT. "If Defoe had scored two goals against Egypt no one would have mentioned other parts of his game because he fits people's perception of what a goalscorer looks like. But they do with Crouch".
My Other Life
"I always take a book with me on away trips. I'm really proud to play a part in Tottenham's participation in World Book Day and I hope we can do our bit to encourage children to read more. I'm currently reading Martina Cole's The Runaway. On my iPod at the moment are Kasabian and Kings of Leon."Reuse content