A funny thing happened to Peter Crouch when Liverpool played at Newcastle last weekend: he wasn't booed. While other England players up and down the country were verbal victims of the fallout from that crucial home defeat by Croatia, a striker once shockingly jeered when warming up for only his third international appearance escaped all the abuse. It was as if Tyneside acknowledged that at least one player deserved better for his efforts at Wembley, when Crouch's equalising volley briefly seemed to have rounded off a great escape for England and Steve McClaren.
"It's come full circle," he suggested with a wry smile on Thursday, an initially vicious circle having begun at Old Trafford in October 2005, when he was sent on as substitute for Shaun Wright-Phillips against Poland to boos from the Manchester crowd.
It was just another stage in the long struggle to become accepted, one that seems to have followed the affable Crouch to half-a-dozen clubs as well as into international football. And is the battle won yet? With Liverpool supporters, certainly, who welcomed his appearance from the substitutes' bench against Porto on Wednesday and celebrated his headed goal to round off a flattering 4-1 victory.
But what of Rafa Benitez, the manager, who has had Crouch in the dug-out more often than in the starting line-up this season?
Even as we talked the day after the Porto match, at the launch of a mobile-phone game, Real Football 2008, the bookmakers were cutting their odds to only 5-4 against Crouch leaving Anfield in January.
"You never know," he said with some resignation about where he might be playing his real football in 2008. "I've been at a few clubs now and I know how quickly it can all happen, but for me personally I don't want to go anywhere. The last two games I haven't started, but the two games previous to that I played, so it's hard to read. I'm sure the manager will change the team around for Bolton [today]. Even as players we can't guess the team he's going to put out. He likes to keep us guessing."
It has been an odd sort of season so far for Liverpool, who were expected to make a serious challenge at last for a first League title in 18 years. They remain unbeaten, yet have not been in the top three since September and, with one away game to come in Marseille, could still finish bottom of a tight Champions' League group.
"There have been too many draws, especially at home," Crouch admits. "We had a slow start but we're picking up with the 8-0 against Besiktas, a comfortable win at Newcastle and then Porto 4-1. We're starting to come together and we'll have a strong second half to the season. But Bolton are coming off the back of a fantastic win [over Manchester United]. Their forte is they work hard, get about teams, and they've got quality too with players like Nicolas Anelka."
As well as speculation about Benitez's future Liverpool co-owner Tom Hicks yesterday said that claims he could sell his shares in the club are "absolute rubbish" Crouch now has to prepare himself for a new manager at international level whom he will have to impress all over again. As a player who tends to divide opinion sharply, it is something he has grown used to. At Aston Villa, Graham Taylor liked him, but David O'Leary "binned me but never had the guts to tell me to my face"; at Southampton, Steve Wigley would not play him whereas Harry Redknapp built a team and a strategy around him.
So it was unfortunate for Crouch that the boys in blue chose last week for one of their excitable "dawn raids" chez Redknapp, causing palpitations at the FA "Harry would be an excellent candidate," Crouch says. "He's a top manager look at the job he's doing at Portsmouth. He'd talk to you all the time and be totally honest and open with you. He gets the best out of players and that's what England need at the minute, someone to get the best out of the talent that we have."
A foreign coach with pre-conceived ideas about England being a long-ball team lumping it forward to a 6ft 7in striker may see Crouch differently, of course. In which case, he will concentrate on proving himself all over again.
"I remember my early days at Tottenham, wondering whether I was ever going to make it. I went on loan to Sweden and to Dulwich Hamlet in the Ryman Premier League, my dad driving me to an away game at Carshalton or somewhere. There have been ups and downs. I felt like I've proved myself as an England player and done well, but then a new manager comes in and doesn't fancy you and you have to work doubly hard to get in the team again. But I've always had confidence in my ability." Which is just as well.
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