Peter Crouch: Talking big
Portsmouth's new £11m striker tells Sam Wallace why he left Liverpool, how he and Jermain Defoe will score a lot of goals and the strange story about the kit man and the sofa
Saturday 16 August 2008
For the sixth time in his career Peter Crouch finds himself in a new house, in a new part of the country, without his furniture and waiting for the man from Sky to come round and hook up his television. You get the impression, as he hunts around an empty kitchen for some clean cups, that the man himself could not be happier. He is on the brink of another new chapter and by now Crouch has faced enough new challenges to know change is nothing to fear.
Portsmouth's £11m signing cannot wait to make his Premier League debut against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge tomorrow. Funnily enough, it is at the club – who tried to sign him as a 12-year-old growing up in Ealing – where he was a ballboy as a kid and the team that his father supported. What matters most, however, is that he knows he will be in Harry Redknapp's first XI, the most important thing for a player who thrives on the support of his manager. "It is a great feeling that the manager at Portsmouth has a great deal of confidence in me," he says. "That breeds confidence in me. I really believe that when the manager puts so much faith in me I respond better to that."
Leaving Liverpool. It is not a decision that any player takes lightly, certainly not one who, at the age of 27, is coming into his prime as a footballer. But then it is about, Crouch says, what matters most to you. He could have stayed, signed a new contract and had a small slice of the action, but what would be the point, he asks, when, in his own words, he would have been "pretending to lift trophies" as a fringe player? It was a choice about the kind of player he was – one happy to stay part of the supporting cast or play a bigger role elsewhere.
"It would be quite simple to not do too much," he says. "It would be quite easy to sit there and come off the bench for Liverpool now and then, you get paid the same. If you are part of the big club, you can pretend to lift trophies. It's quite easy to do that. It's certainly not in my nature. At the end of my career I could say, 'I have won this and I have won that'. But, looking at myself in the mirror, have I really won that? That's certainly something that crossed my mind when I decided to leave. I thought I cannot look myself in the mirror and say I have actually won that if I have not been part of the team."
It is an honest assessment from a player who the Liverpool Echo newspaper – no voice more representative of the Scouse nation than theirs – said made "the most dignified of goodbyes" from Anfield. It is the way that Crouch wanted it to be. He played in 36 games for Liverpool last season and scored 11 goals, but it was the nature of those games that convinced him his time was up. He had only nine starts in the Premier League and he did not play a minute of the two Champions League semi-final ties against Chelsea. For a player with ambition, not to mention an England career, he simply had to leave.
"I have no grudge against the manager [Rafa Benitez], when he started playing one up front he was always going to play [Fernando] Torres and it was not something that I had any qualms about," Crouch says. "But when he played two up front I felt myself and Torres were a good combination. He didn't seem to want to do that but I bear no grudges – it was his decision. And obviously my memories of my time at Liverpool are fantastic. What a great club to have played for. I have got only fond memories of my time there.
"There are loads that stand out. Winning the FA Cup was one, a hat-trick against Arsenal when we won 4-1 [in March 2007], the scissor-kick goal in the Champions League [against Galatasaray in 2006], knocking Manchester United out of the FA Cup [in 2006], getting to the Champions League final – that moment when we beat Chelsea in the semis. Great, great memories. Every goal I scored in front of the Kop. You just can't beat that feeling."
Now in his second spell at Portsmouth, Crouch has played for six different clubs, including a loan period at Norwich City, and the leaving never gets any less abrupt or impersonal. It is more than six years since Redknapp, then also in his first spell as Portsmouth manager, sold Crouch to Aston Villa for £5m in March 2002. The then 21-year-old striker had scored 19 goals in the space of eight months since arriving in the summer of 2001 from Queen's Park Rangers. That March he found himself sold to Villa in the matter of a few days and living in the smallest room the Belfry hotel had to offer within a week of playing his last game for Pompey.
This time was no different. "It's unbelievable. One minute you're a Liverpool player and thinking about going on the pre-season and the next minute you're living in a different part of the country and you don't see the people you have seen every day for the last three years. I won't see most of them again unless I play against them and some of them never. It's a strange career. There's no big send-off or party. You just have to get on with it and that's the way it is in football. It's certainly something I have experienced a few times.
"It's difficult. I didn't go back in. I spoke to a lot of the lads on the phone. I called a lot of the staff, the girl on reception, the kit man. They all wished me well. I had a good relationship with them and I hope I can go back there with my head held high. You have to keep pushing on in every single game and at the end of your career you can look through the photos and the tapes and say: 'That was great, we did this, we did that.' But at the moment I have to keep looking forward not back because it will leave you behind."
One of Crouch's favourite stories from his first spell at Portsmouth was when he enlisted the legendary Pompey kit man, Kevin McCormack, to help him move a sofa that he could not get up the stairs to his flat. Ignoring the stairs, McCormack, a former amateur boxer, put a ladder against the side of the building, carried the sofa up on his shoulder and heaved it on to Crouch's balcony. Of all the people he left behind when he left Portsmouth the first time, McCormack is one of the few still there. The players have changed beyond recognition.
Portsmouth are now flush with big names like Kanu, Sol Campbell, Jermain Defoe, David James, Glen Johnson, Niko Kranjcar and Lassana Diarra, but it was very different when Crouch played his last competitive game for Portsmouth against Sheffield Wednesday on 23 March, 2002. Dave Beasant was in goal, Shaun Derry and Nigel Quashie were in midfield and the veteran Croatia international Robert Prosinecki came off the bench. Only the Pompey loyalists will remember players such as Kevin Harper, Courtney Pitt, Lewis Buxton and David Waterman, who were also part of a team then in the Championship.
The most important man, however, is Redknapp, who had a profound effect on Crouch's career when he played for him at Southampton in the 2004-2005 season before joining Liverpool. "His [Redknapp's] method is quite simple really," Crouch says. "He knows football inside out – he has that knowledge. He is good tactically but he is good with people. If you've had a bad game he will tell you straight to your face: 'You were crap today.' If you have done really well for him, and he is really pleased, he will give you a big pat on the back and tell you you're the best player in the world. You feel great. And you want to go out the next week and do the same. You just don't want to let him down. It's a simple, effective way of getting the best out of his players."
The received opinion is that Crouch and Defoe will work together because Crouch can play the role of the target man to make goals for his strike partner. Crouch nevertheless sees himself as a goalscorer above all, whose record for England is 14 goals in 28 caps, only 14 of which have been starts. "Jermain will always score goals, I always believe I will, so there is a partnership there," Crouch says. "Jermain has the pace to make clever little runs in behind and score goals. If an out-ball is needed or a target is needed, I'm there and I think we can balance the best of both of our attributes.
"Basically, I go into every game believing I can score and if it doesn't materialise then I am disappointed. If I haven't scored it hurts and I want to make sure the next time. If the ball is played in early, I can bring other players in. What I thrive on is crosses into the box and when teams do that I have always scored goals. If we do that then I'm very confident I will get my fair share."
At some point this season, it is a racing certainty that one pundit will demand that Crouch prove himself in some way – as if he has not done enough to establish himself already. It is ever thus in the career of a player who does not fit the archetypal image of a goalscorer. Crouch says he does not worry about what people think of him. He is confident of his own ability and feels stronger than ever. Just as during his time at Liverpool, this summer at Portsmouth he finished in the top three at the pre-season beep test – the shuttle run test used by clubs to measure players' fitness.
"People will always have their opinions. I am happy in my own mind that I have achieved a few things in my career and I believe there is more to come. The manager at Liverpool knows I am a good player, otherwise he wouldn't have bought me in the first place. The fans at Liverpool were great to me and a lot of people said to me they were really pleased with the way I played there. As long as those people are happy I don't have anything to prove apart from what I do on the pitch every week.
"I would like to be irreplaceable like Torres, Stevie Gerrard, Jamie Carragher – players who play every week in a massive club – but that wasn't working out for me. I've come to Portsmouth and, hopefully, I can get a good run of games, play under the new manager and enjoy it. When I'm playing every week, any player will tell you that's when you become a better player and more confident."
There will be no tougher test than Chelsea tomorrow – and Manchester United a week on Monday at Fratton Park – to begin the season. Between those two games Crouch would hope to be in the England squad to face the Czech Republic next week. Portsmouth go to Anfield on 29 October, an evening that will mean a great deal to him. But for now, he stresses, there is no time for looking back: "I think I have changed a lot of people's opinions over the years. I feel settled playing for Portsmouth, living in this part of the country, and I hope I can see out the four years on my contract and more. I believe I can have the best years of my career here."
Little and large
Tallest in premier league
since the league began in 1992-93 Ian Feuer (6ft 8in) (gk) West Ham (1994-96 and 2000-1)
high flYers for this season Asmir Begovic (6ft 7in) (goalkeeper) PortsmouthPeter Crouch (6ft 7in) (striker) PortsmouthZat Knight (6ft 7in) (centre-half) Aston Villa
shortest in premier league
since the league began in 1992-93 Jose Dominguez (5ft 3in) (winger) Tottenham (1997-2000)
this season's little 'unsRoss Wallace (5ft 6in) (winger) SunderlandAaron Lennon (5ft 5in) (winger) Tottenham Shaun Wright-Phillips (5ft 5in) (winger) Chelsea
My other life
I have gone through the whole box set of The Sopranos. I watched it last season when I got back from training. I'm a fan of 24, which hits the ground running, but The Sopranos is different, not like 24, just very good. It's hard to explain the appeal but if you like films like Goodfellas you'll love The Sopranos. I'm into the The Wire, too, which is about drug police and is set in Baltimore. Brilliant.
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