Steve Tongue: Crouch wins the battle for respect

'I'm not your average-looking footballer' - but Anfield striker has more fans on his side
Click to follow
The Independent Football

As befits someone 6ft 7in tall, Peter Crouch has been making great strides. He has certainly moved on by a distance from the time England supporters at Old Trafford booed his entrance as a substitute, let alone the period when David O'Leary offered him on loan from Aston Villa and received one firm offer.

Like many young Premiership players before him, a few games on loan at a lower level, in this case with Norwich City, did wonders for fragile confidence. Villa did not reap the benefit, their supporters remaining as unconvinced by six goals in 37 appearances as those England followers who jeered him against Austria and Poland only 11 months ago. But Southampton and Liverpool have had greater cause for satisfaction, and yesterday he was back at Manchester United's ground as an established international and Champions' League striker, with a record of 10 goals in his last nine England games - seven of them at Old Trafford, including yesterday's double. That record in itself is something of a rebuke to Sven Goran Eriksson, who said of him after his mauling from the Manchester crowd: "Peter Crouch will probably never score lots of goals but he will create lots of goals."

"It seems like a long, long time ago," the player himself said on Friday. "Now I've had the chance to play at the World Cup, on a big stage for Liverpool and a good few games for England, I think a lot more people can see I can play."

Since the earliest days he has been the victim of sizeism, labelled "freak" by fans (often not just opposing ones) and stereotyped as a big target-man: "I think some people make a judgement before they see me play. I'm not your average-looking footballer, I'm the first to admit that. People see me and say, 'Long balls, lump it up to him', but I think I can do a lot more than that. I've had knocks in my life but I've always believed the best way is to laugh it off, be strong mentally and carry on and show people what you can do. It's one of those things I've dealt with my whole life. Now I've started to get the respect I feel I deserve."

Like most of the England squad in Germany, his performances were admittedly mixed at best. "I think it will have improved me," he says. "It was a great experience, although we felt we could have gone a bit further, and that stood me in good stead for this year."

A touch of good fortune - which in football can often mean the misfortune of others - never hurts. But for injuries to Michael Owen and Dean Ashton and the suspension of Wayne Rooney, Crouch would have been as low as fourth striker on Steve McClaren's pecking list this week rather than first choice. He has been reminded of that by the guest appearances of Owen and Rooney at England's headquarters in Manchester, the Lowry Hotel. But Crouch, the original footballing matchstick man, was the one going to the match as player, not spectator, and was well aware ahead of Wednesday's game in Macedonia of the need to continue staking his claims: "With those players being out, it's a chance for myself and Jermain [Defoe]. Anytime you play for England there's always going to be someone willing to take your place, whether it's Wayne, Michael, Andy Johnson or Darren Bent. You need to take your chance when you get it and impress when you can."

McClaren, though he was leaning towards giving Ashton that opportunity, has duly been impressed with Crouch, of whom he said after two goals in seven minutes against Greece last month: "Peter has emerged and matured. He's different, he gives a different aspect that's not nice to defend against. He's not just good in the air, his feet are great. He can bring others into the game, which helps our midfield, who can run beyond him and get Defoe a bit of space. He's a valuable player for this squad."

The appreciation is mutual, Crouch enjoying working under Eriksson's successor and his new assistants. "Steve's strength is working with players. He can improve anyone. He's a lot more hands-on [than Eriksson], does a lot more of the coaching. Terry Venables is a hands-on guy who wants to be involved, and Steve Round is very much part of it."

The greater emphasis on pace and width, and the preference for two outright strikers rather than a split system, also appeal to a player bound to thrive on a proper supply of crosses. "I'm not renowned for electric pace but at Liverpool we've got Craig Bellamy, Jermaine Pennant and Mark Gonzalez, and I enjoy playing with players who beat people, get to the by-line and cross the ball. The manager [McClaren] is keen on width, and with a player like Stewart Downing you know when he gets the ball he's more than likely going to cross it. At times you may have to play up front on your own to help out the team, but any striker will tell you that you want to be playing with a partner, it's easier."

Crouch has become a good conversationalist, his fluency reflecting a new confidence in his football. Yet he is shrewd enough to observe: "It's all right talking and saying you deserve to be in the team. But you have to produce it."