James Lawton: Who now dares question the inclusion of Crouch in England's World Cup plans?
Tuesday 06 June 2006
If it should be that Peter Crouch is indeed a significant factor in England's World Cup the toast should not simply be to a young man of terrific fortitude and good humour. We might also raise a glass to the defeat of all those sneering smart-arses who mistake cheap cruelty for wit, and who tend to assemble like foaming-mouthed dogs at the first scent of weakness, even difference.
Because Crouch performed a bizarre dance, and scored three goals against Jamaica the other day, he is now the big tall item. His worst critics, their statistics of his old goallessness crumpled and discarded in favour of the next easy, running joke, now herald a discovery of rare and freakishly exciting dimensions. When the England coach Sven Goran Eriksson matter-of-factly announced his intention of playing his first game in Germany without the Liverpool player, there was scarcely a whimper of dissent. Now if Crouch happened to be omitted from the opening duel with Paraguay there would probably be questions in the House.
It is all, of course, the usual drivelling nonsense pumped out when World Cup fever takes over. Crouch has not suddenly become a world beater. He remains what he has always been, a professional footballer of a certain and conspicuous value.
His mother was probably right when she disapproved of his robotic dance, which to many would seem like engaging fun but to her protective eye might have suggested exposure, if things went wrong, to a rehash of some old mockery.
Mothers often know best, and here is one, surely, who warrants a hearing. She has, after all, helped to bring up a son with a set of values that would command respect in any walk of life, and are surely remarkable in a world which, against the heaviest odds and sometimes most unpleasant circumstances, he appears to be in the process of conquering, at least to the point of earning a well-deserved measure of respect.
Certainly, it is to be hoped that there are a fair number of mea culpas being murmured among those who dreamt up the idea of flooding the BBC's Sports Personality of the Year award with votes for Crouch when he was enduring a goalscoring drought of Sahara proportions a few months ago. This campaign, aimed at embarrassing a wonderfully good-hearted player, apparently gained such ground that he was running hard behind the Ashes hero Freddie Flintoff in the BBC voting. Then Crouch started to score goals. Despite the sickening boos at Old Trafford when he was brought on to the field in a World Cup qualifying game, he played with his usual gallantry and had his effect. The other night at the same ground, but now buoyed by his chat with the heir to the throne and the artistic success of his effort on the dance floor, he was cheered quite thunderously.
What was this about? The switching tides of celebrity, the fickle swings of public opinion, the arbritary nature of any popularity when it is played out in the heat of restless media attention, you name it. Another unpleasant fact of the Crouch experience: five years ago the tall, perhaps gauche young man was listed on the charmlessly named Ugly Footballers' website. Now he is a hero who would be welcomed as the new resident at almost everyone's next door.
In a few days' time we will get to the heart of the matter. How good a footballer is Peter Crouch? In professional circles the jury is still musing, as it always will be when a player of such unusual dimensions presents himself at the highest levels of the game. But for some he long ago established a basic worth, for his ability to use his height, not in the kind of devastating heading power that marked the career of say, Alan Shearer, but in deft flicks and lay-offs, and a deceptive ability on the ground. In this he reminded some pros of Niall Quinn, who was a much more formidable figure physically, but one whose commanding height, and fine football intelligence, was guaranteed to disconcert any defence. Jan Koller of the Czech Republic is similarly tall, but does he have the resolution and the surprising craft of Crouch? Almost certainly not.
Crouch, in his extraordinary, skeletal shape, is unique in the history of modern English football. For anything like a comparison, at least in terms of controversy, you probably have to go all the way back to 1958 and the World Cup in Sweden, when the young Bobby Charlton, to the rage of the cognoscenti, and most fiercely that of Manchester United's No 2 and Welsh manager Jimmy Murphy, was kept out of the England side by Derek Kevan of West Bromwich Albion.
Kevan was not so tall as Crouch but he was ungainly and some said it was an offence that he kept out the rising golden boy. But one old pro, a fan of Crouch, recalls: "Kevan wasn't everybody's favourite, he didn't play with great natural skill, but you could never afford to give him anything around the box."
When Brian Clough saw in John Robertson, a Scot of generous shape, a match-winning, withdrawn winger, many pros were disbelieving. But they became believers quickly enough when Robertson opened the door to European Cup glory.
Can Crouch perform something of the same order for England? We will have to wait to see but in the mean time there are plenty of reasons to celebrate his presence in the greatest tournament in the game. He is not a Wayne Rooney or a Steven Gerrard or a David Beckham, he is not a player whose success could have been confidently flagged up from his early teens. But he has a value of spirit and unusual gifts, and when he runs out on to the field in Frankfurt against Paraguay on Saturday he will have already won the greatest battle of his life.
He will have behind him one great success. It was against the meaner aspects of the mob, the cheap baiters who pick on anyone who is different, and thus perhaps vulnerable. They picked on the wrong man, though, in Peter Crouch. Whoever steps into the sunlight in a month or so's time in Berlin, Crouch can be a proud of a winner's medal all of his own. It goes to anyone who takes on life on his own terms and comes shining through.
Pele's youthful experience lends authority to criticism over Walcott
Pele may not be the ultimate voice of football wisdom. His unique brilliance on the field of play has not always translated into fearless commentary on the state of the game, and the people in it. Four years ago he nominated Nicky Butt as potentially the outstanding player of the World Cup, albeit to an English audience.
However, when he offered his thoughts on the selection of Theo Walcott by England we were bound to listen. It was a subject extremely close to his own experience as the 17-year-old sensation of the 1958 World Cup.
The difference was that Pele had been for two seasons a star of the leading Brazilian club Santos and had been his nation's first choice for a year ... after coming into the team as a 16-year-old and scoring three goals in two games, one as a substitute. The games were against Argentina at the Maracana Stadium in Rio de Janeiro and in São Paulo.
Said Pele, "Why somebody is selected for the national team without playing [top-flight football] is very difficult to understand. This is the first time in my life that a player has been selected like this. It is unique."
Unique is one way of putting it. Without prejudice to what we hope is a glittering future for the young Arsenal reserve, it has to be said that it is also the most staggering decision of all time. Like so many lesser figures in football, Pele chose the diplomatic route. But for once he made his point quite unequivocally.
Murali a rare marvel of modesty
It is said of Muttiah Muralitharan that his weakness is a certain lack of confidence. If only, one of his countrymen remarked, he believed a little more in the brilliance of his own talent.
Opponents can only thank god for this deficiency in a man who was at his mesmerising best yesterday before the popular Monty Panesar plundered some late, ultimately inconsequential runs from an eight-wicket aggregate that perfectly reflected the influence of one of the world's great spin bowlers.
That such artistry should be accompanied by a profound modesty is not the least of its glory.
At a time when sporting celebrity is so often invaded by the most self-assertive mediocrity, it is a marvel and a joy.
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