We have seen the future - it is not Crouch

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The Independent Football

Uruguay. Hungary. Jamaica. Trinidad & Tobago. Greece. Andorra. Macedonia. The next time it is suggested that Peter Crouch is "undroppable", prin-cipally on the basis of 11 England goals in 14 games, a tally which has had some deluded souls talking of him overtaking Sir Bobby Charlton's record of 49, perhaps we should remind ourselves of the opponents concerned.

They are nations who tend to place Steve McClaren's descrip-tions of Crouch as "phenomenal", after the victory against Andorra, and "a big, big player", following the 1-0 defeat of Macedonia in Skopje, into some kind of perspective. True, his excellently converted scissors-kick for the winner was testament to his finishing on Wednesday night. His sheer nuisance value in the area might have won him a first-half penalty had the French official done his job adequately and punished Nikolce Noveski for wrestling Crouch to the floor in the area like a would-be Giant Haystacks.

Crouch is an uncomplaining type, who simply gets on with the task required of him. In temperament he is a coach's delight; he is an invaluable squad member, an "impact" player. But he is not England's future.

David Platt, the former England Under-21 coach, who had the 6ft 7in striker in his charge, is not alone in being still uncon-vinced as to whether Crouch can shatter that glass ceiling and become just as much a handful against the world's leading defenders. It is undeniable that the Liverpool striker will retain his place until principalities and former members of the Republic of Yugoslavia are replaced as opposition by teams capable of actually providing some soph-isticated, durable defending, or until Steve McClaren is offered any genuine choice in the matter.

When there was some serious competition for places, before that first post-World Cup friendly against Greece, the England coach elected to start with Dean Ashton. The West Ham striker's ankle break during train-ing denied McClaren a view of him in an international context. However, the suspicion is that once that forward, blessed with vigour, superb close control and an executioner's eye around goal, returns, he will provide the natural foil for Wayne Rooney.

Speaking of whom, the genital-stamping genius returns from international suspension against Macedonia on 7 October at Old Trafford. That will be important in the trickier games to come because he offers more than the goalscorer's art; he is the conduit from midfield, that is when he is not bypassing those players altogether with his surging runs. There can be few doubts that Crouch will partner him, at least initially. Jermain Defoe has yet to demonstrate he possesses true international prowess. That spurned first-half chance which he lashed over the bar was the kind that needs to be taken if the Tottenham man is to enhance his England claims.

Andy Johnson is a willing runner, with speed, but lacks international experience. Michael Owen, having recently undergone an operation on his cruciate ligament in the United States, is several months from a return to club action, let alone European contention, and whether he retains one of his principal assets, his pace, is uncertain. Unless a striker such as James Beattie, say, imprints himself in McClaren's thinking, Darren Bent imposes himself more or Theo Walcott, who scored once again for the England Under-21s, emerges, this time as a genuine contender, the England coach is severely limited in his options.

That said, McClaren, for all his positive words, will be more exercised by his midfield. The display on Wednesday against a side who contained one or two polished performers, including the Lazio midfielder Goran Pandev, harked back too often to those hazy, crazy days of midsummer when nobody for all the world could maintain possession. Fortunately for the England coach, the hosts lacked penetration.

Incidentally, it took Sir Bobby Charlton 106 games to establish his England goalscoring record. There is considerably more cannon fodder available now for a striker with record-breaking pretensions. But even at the current rate Crouch would still require around 70 games to amass 50 goals. No wonder the bookmakers are offering 20-1 against it happening.

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