Peter Crouch tells a good story about the night he and his family went out for a quiet dinner to celebrate his dad's birthday in June – just him, dad Bruce, mum Jayne and younger sister Sarah. As they left the restaurant they were pursued by one particularly persistent paparazzo who only desisted when he was pointed out, by Bruce, "the skip he would be going into".
The next day they discovered that they hadn't quite escaped – there was a picture of Peter and Sarah in one London newspaper accompanied by the headline "Crouch's new mystery blonde". The problem with being 6ft 7in tall, as Crouch will tell you, is that it is impossible to be anonymous although you cannot account for certain standards of reporting. Tomorrow, his Liverpool team play Tottenham in a match that has become crucial for both clubs and in the 10 days that follow he hopes to be a major part of the England team that can seal qualification for Euro 2008 against Estonia at Wembley and in Moscow on 17 October against Russia.
We met before Wednesday's defeat to Marseilles in the Champions League, a result that typified the up-and-down season that both Crouch and his club are enduring. It was a painful night for Crouch who has known triumph and despair over his career. Those fickle fortunes – as well as the funny stories – are a recurring theme in Crouch's new book Walking Tall, the life and times of the England international that came out last month. Wednesday's game was the latest twist in a career that has already seen a few.
It is here that I have to declare an interest because, over the last nine months, I have written the book with Crouch. Our literary partnership has, I modestly hope, produced the unusual story of a modern footballer who has had an atypical career for these times. Six years before Crouch played at the 2006 World Cup he was playing non-League at Dulwich Hamlet and with part-timers in Sweden. He has been fêted and abused by fans – even by his own teams' fans. And preconceived notions about his height have meant he has had to prove himself over and over again, a requirement that he seems to suffer from even now.
Not that the man himself would want any pity, he just feels that he has an interesting story to tell and the more we explored it, the more it became obvious what a major part his family had played in it all. The Crouches are a very close bunch who, as a family, spent some of Peter's earlier years in the Far East. His dad, Bruce, is a successful advertising executive but has still been to every one of his son's games. Not just the good times but also the Southampton reserve games and the night his son was booed when he came on for England.
It is not often you interview a footballer and ask his dad to come along as well but, in writing the book, it became clear to me just how important fathers can be in the lives of young, successful professional footballers. Besides, some of the book's most striking and memorable moments include both father and son: like the night out they had together to take Peter's mind off his 18-game run without a goal at the start of his Liverpool career. Or when Bruce got so fed up with the schoolboy Peter shirking a tackle in a training session for Tottenham's junior team, he left his son at White Hart Lane to find his own way home.
That episode had come up earlier in the day in an interview Peter did with Radio 5 Live and he has a good laugh later at his dad's embarrassment at it all. He never considered leaving that story out – even though Bruce says with mock horror that the incident makes him look like the archetypal pushy parent – because the book was always intended to be about the tough times too. The White Hart Lane episode was just one of those funny, inexplicable things that happen in the life of every family.
"I have to say what it comes down to for me was that my dad knew I had ability," Peter says. "He didn't want to see me waste it but if there was any way I was faltering then my dad let me know. Even now if something needs to be said, he will tell me. If I played badly as a kid, my dad would tell me and my mum would say: 'You were brilliant today'. It's nice to have both: when I need a bit of confidence I'll see her and if I need to hear it straight I'll see my dad."
It was not easy being a very tall, skinny teenager who many coaches did not rate because they could not see beyond his unusual build. "You are very protective when your children are young and I never felt anyone was in Pete's corner when he was making his way so I felt I had to be," Bruce says. "That went on for a bit, professionally as well with David O'Leary [at Aston Villa] and Steve Wigley [at Southampton]. Then when they get to the top – as Pete has – you just back off. He doesn't need any protection any more – he is big enough to look after himself."
Bruce is only two inches shorter than his 6ft 7in son and they have both heard enough tall people jokes to last them a lifetime. More unpleasantly, Bruce has listened to his son being called a "freak" in countless football grounds and had to fight hard to keep his temper. When Peter was a child, parents of opposing Sunday teams would query his age because he was so tall. As a professional, the abuse was particularly bad when he was starting out – strangely it was always worse at places like Gillingham.
Over the years, Bruce has learned that he cannot possibly take on everyone. "And I want to because that's my personality," he says. "That's when you start to learn from your children because the way Pete handles criticism or anything of that nature is far better than I could handle it. I have learned from him how to behave in that situation, whereas before I would have let myself down. You learn how not to say anything, let your actions speak louder, to have dignity, to prove people wrong rather than telling them – which would be my way. Pete has got a real inner strength like his mum."
It has been quite a journey for Peter, from his YTS days at Tottenham, on loan at Dulwich Hamlet and the Swedish team IFK Hasselholm, then to Queen's Park Rangers, Portsmouth, Aston Villa, Norwich City (on loan), Southampton and Liverpool. Tomorrow he hopes to be in the team against Tottenham at Anfield but there are no guarantees under Rafael Benitez's rotation policy. Having started against Marseilles, now it seems inevitable that Benitez will shuffle the pack again tomorrow.
"What will happen is that the team will change throughout the course of the season," Peter says. "The manager has made his intentions clear from day one at the club. He likes a certain player for certain games. If he wants pace then Fernando Torres or Andrei Voronin will play, if he needs someone in the hole Dirk Kuyt will play. If he needs someone holding the ball high up the pitch or in the air then I'll play. It will be chopped and changed around but hopefully for the good of Liverpool. I want to be part of it and we have a chance this year."
After Sunday, Peter is back on England duty and hoping to start against Estonia and Russia. He has a record of 12 goals in 21 caps although only 12 of them have been starts for England. Emile Heskey's re-emergence cost him his place after he was suspended for the recent Israel game, now with Heskey and Michael Owen injured, it looks like a Crouch-Wayne Rooney partnership is back on the cards.
However, as usual in the life of Crouch, nothing is being taken for granted. There have been recent allegations that a supposedly celebrity lifestyle is affecting his standing at Liverpool, despite the fact that this is the man whose idea of a night out after an England game at Wembley is a curry with his old school-mates in Ealing, west London, where he grew up. He goes out with the model Abbey Clancy but she does not feature in the book for no more complicated reason than he thought it would be wrong to mention her and not any of his previous relationships. When you meet Crouch you know immediately that, apart from his height, there is nothing big-time about him.
There is something about him that makes people smile. As our photographer David Ashdown takes Peter and Bruce's picture, at the back of the publisher's building on Euston Road, two men in suits walk round the corner. One of them spots Peter and immediately breaks into a version of the robot dance that the Liverpool striker briefly made his goal celebration for England last year. It almost seems like an involuntary reaction.
The robot dance became so famous even the actor Mickey Rourke demanded a picture with Peter last summer when he was on holiday in Miami – but it's not just that which people seem to like. "I'll be walking down the street with a mate and someone will stop and say 'All right Crouchy, how's things?' and so on," Peter says. "Once they're gone, the person I'm with will say 'Do you know them?' and I'll say 'I've never met them before in my life'. Happens all the time."
He knows that footballers get stick for writing books at a young age – he is 26 – but, in his words, "if I didn't think it was interesting I wouldn't have done it." It is certainly not the usual smooth ride to fame. Bruce and Jayne were 21 when Peter was born and within two years the young family moved to Singapore for Bruce's work. Growing up in Asia, Peter's first words were in Mandarin and, on holiday in Malaysia, the Crouches were almost kidnapped by the local Communist Party guerrillas. When they returned to London having travelled around, money was so tight they lived in a YMCA hostel on Tottenham Court Road for six months.
It is a standing joke among the Crouches that people now insist on calling them a "middle-class family" in a sport traditionally played by working-class boys – prompting Bruce to ask "when do I get to qualify as upper class?" In Walking Tall, Peter recalls the time that his parents decided, when he was 11, they could afford to send him to a private school in Hammersmith. Horrified, he failed the entrance exam on purpose so he could go to the local comprehensive in Ealing with his mates.
As a trainee at Tottenham he was one of the last generation to go through the YTS programme which was closer to football's old apprenticeships – cleaning boots and getting kicked around by the first-team pros – than the current day academy scholarships. At QPR in the 2000-2001 season he was part of a struggling team in what is now the Championship that would get abused by their own fans in the players' car park and have bonding sessions at a pub on the Uxbridge Road. One of the interesting aspects of Crouch is that despite being a modern day footballer he was one of the last of the current England team to have an old-school upbringing in the game.
"Pete came through a hard school," Bruce says. "Dulwich Hamlet, Sweden, lower division football with QPR, stick at Gillingham. There are a lot of what I call 'silver spoon footballers' who have gone to Lilleshall and then straight to the Premiership who don't experience that. That's where the inner toughness has come from and that is why the England fans booing him [when he came on against Poland in 2005] bounced off him. Not even a moan. It upset me and made me annoyed and angry but it didn't bother Pete one bit. And I knew he would just go back and get a goal. That's the way he deals with it."
Walking Tall by Peter Crouch is out now, published by Hodder and Stoughton, hardback £18.99Reuse content