Robin Scott-Elliot: Crouch, giant of the game, proves that big is beautiful
The Way I See It: Fabio Capello was never going to trust a player who appears part Van Basten, part Rodney Trotter
Monday 26 March 2012
There was a moment on Saturday evening when Peter Crouch, his body shaped as if Marco van Basten, became fleetingly one of the true giants of the game. The fact that he later paused before answering the question "your best ever?", as if mentally flicking back through his collected works of great goals, only heightened the moment. The parabola that Crouch traced audaciously through the Potteries sky simultaneously pencilled in another chapter of his breed's football parable; big can be beautiful.
Actually it is more specific than that. Crouch and his ilk are not the towering brickhouse frontmen so beloved of Sam Allardyce; rather, his breed exists uneasily outside the game's big five – the strapping centre-half, the languid creator, the tearaway wide man, the goal poacher and that brickhouse. They are tall but more beanpole than battering ram, and with that come a peculiar spread of skills and an unparalleled ability to mix the gracious with the clumsy, the bewildering with the breathtaking. We're in giraffe country.
It was in the early 1990s that the skyscraping striker first gambolled into my affections. Aberdeen recruited Wim van der Ark, who, at 6ft 5in, was small by today's standards. As with many of this type he was all odd angles, elbows and knees, erratic in the air. Van der Ark often played as if his head was in the clouds, which during a North Sea haar it sometimes was. But every now and then he would do something special; score four times in a Scottish Cup tie at Partick or set up a cup final winner. It is the trademark of his band of lofty brothers. Van der Ark is now an estate agent back in the Netherlands but even so is still held in high affection in the north-east of Scotland.
They are not a common breed which may explain the familiar direction their career paths have followed. Jan Koller is half an inch taller than the 6ft 7in Crouch and bulkier too, but was a similar player in that his abilities were more grounded than airborne. Koller played for eight clubs; Stoke is Crouch's ninth. Nikola Zigic, who is the same height as Koller, is also on his ninth employer at Birmingham (for whom, incidentally, he scored four times at Leeds in January to double his season's return). It is as if managers look at the catalogue entry, are impressed by the big numbers – all three have a notable international scoring rate – and decide they want one, only to discover when they get it home that it does not go with what they already have.
There appears a lack of trust in Crouch and Co. No one, not least the player himself, is quite sure what is going to happen next. When they are good they stand out and when they are bad they stand out even more. There is football snobbery at work too. Fabio Capello, seeped in the Italian tradition, was never going to trust a player who can appear part Van Basten, part Rodney Trotter. To Capello, Crouch didn't look the part of an international footballer.
Yet his record suggests otherwise, as do those of Koller and Zigic. Koller scored 55 times in 91 games for a good Czech Republic side, playing in three European Championship finals and one World Cup. He formed a classic partnership with Milan Baros, the pair's contrasting abilities fitting together as well as Sir Dave Richards and an ornamental water feature. Zigic has 20 goals in 57 games for Serbia and Crouch has 22 in 42 for England. Harry Redknapp was once an admirer (although he did crate him up and ship him to Stoke) so there remains some hope of an international return.
Whether or not Crouch, who is now 31, ever gets to play for his country again, he already has an international reputation. He is big in China, although not as big as Yang Chanpeng. When the 6ft 8in (some have him at 6ft 11in – the variance is all part of the endearing mystery of the giraffe men) arrived for a trial at Bolton he revealed that back home he was known as "Two metre" or "Crouchie". The Sun came up with the Great Tall of China but he fell short. It leaves the Norwegian Tor Hogne Aaroy to lay claim to being the world's tallest outfield player. Aaroy is 6ft 81/2in and a striker in the Crouch mould. This is a man who stands out in a crowd, not least because he plays in Japan, where the average height is 5ft 7in.
Norway are head and shoulders above the rest when it comes to current footballing giants, with Oyvind Hoas, who once had a trial at Luton, and Even Iversen both 6ft 8in. From down here neither appears particularly proficient, but can't looks be deceiving? As Crouch demonstrated for the umpteenth time in that one moment of absolute, head-to-toe synchronicity on Saturday.
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