The big interview: Peter Crouch - "Thankfully I stuck it out at Liverpool. At first I wanted to re-join Southampton as fast as possible..."
Portraits: Leon Csernohlavek
It’s baffling to think there was a time when Peter Crouch was not universally loved, but the man we crowned our People’s Champion of 2017 has had to work hard to shatter misconceptions – not to mention earn the right to play at the highest level.
Fortunately, 2017 has been a vintage year for Crouchy. Not only has he forced his way back into contention at Stoke aged 36, he’s also scored his 100th Premier League goal and been given his own radio show, briefly.
Music is clearly a big passion, as he’s spent the evening before our chat at a Liam Gallagher gig in east London, although he’s willing to admit his guilty pleasure is Jimmy Nail. “We’ve cleared many an after-party with Crocodile Shoes,” he laughs. Not so easy to do the robot to that one...
- 2005-10 England (42 caps, 22 goals)
You were a Chelsea ball boy as a kid – do you remember any of the games?
Claire Harrison, via Facebook
I remember Dennis Wise coming over to abuse me for not throwing the ball back fast enough, and then Chelsea turning the game around and Dennis giving me a right rollicking for throwing it back too quickly! So I probably wasn’t the best ball boy in the world, although it was a great experience to be so close to the action.
How did you did you find being loaned from Spurs to Dulwich Hamlet? What was it like for a kid from a big Premier League academy to suddenly be taking on physical non-league centre-backs?
Seb Pring, via Twitter
That was a massive culture shock. I was at Spurs, training with the reserves, and it seemed I had so many players ahead of me in the pecking order that I wasn’t going to get a game. David Pleat came to me with the idea of going on loan to Dulwich. I was a bit unsure at first, but going down there was probably one of the best things that I’ve done.
It was an eye-opener – I had huge centre-halves kicking lumps out of me and it definitely toughened me up. I think in academies now, a lot of the young lads don’t want to do things like that – they think they’re playing in big games for the under-23s, but they aren’t really. The best schooling for me came during those loans at the start of my career. They gave me focus.
- 1998-2000 Tottenham
- 2000 Dulwich Hamlet (loan)
- 2000 IFK Hassleholm (loan)
- 2000-01 QPR
- 2001-02 Portsmouth
- 2002-04 Aston Villa
- 2003 Norwich (loan)
- 2004-05 Southampton
- 2005-08 Liverpool
- 2008-09 Portsmouth
- 2009-11 Tottenham
- 2011- Stoke
Do you ever get annoyed with people asking you questions about being tall?
Alan Wooldridge, via Facebook
[Laughs] Well, yeah, obviously I’ve had that for my whole life. I’ve actually had some cards printed up answering all the usual suspects - ‘What’s the weather like up there? Why didn’t you choose to play basketball?’ - and at the bottom it says, ‘I’m glad we’ve had this conversation’. I must get that about three times a day.
What was it like playing with Robert Prosinecki at Portsmouth, and is it true he would smoke 20 cigarettes a day?
Rich Cook, via Facebook
Playing with him was amazing. He was a real character, but what a player. He didn’t really move very much, although he didn’t need to. I think I scored about 19 goals that season and he put pretty much every single one on a plate for me.
He didn’t speak much, but you knew he understood far more than he was letting on. You could speak to him one-on-one and he’d answer in perfect English, but as soon as you told him to track back he would reply: “I don’t understand.” He’d smoke before the game, at half-time in the showers and after the game as well. Red Marlboros, too. The real heavy stuff.
You had a few good moments at Aston Villa, though it never quite worked out. What went wrong, and was it difficult when the supporters got on your back?
Jamie Berger, Worcester
I wouldn’t say the Villa fans got on my back, really. In the first full season it was tough. I was coming up against players like Tony Adams and Sol Campbell, and I was the same sort of height that I am now but about three stone lighter.
I can still remember making my home debut for Villa against Newcastle, looking down the other end, seeing Alan Shearer and thinking I was a million miles away from the level that he was at. I wasn’t really ready for the top flight then, but Graham Taylor really believed in me. Then David O’Leary came in and didn’t fancy me at all. I went on loan to Norwich and came back brimming with confidence, but still didn’t play regularly – I had to move on.
You could speak to Prosinecki one-on-one and he’d answer in perfect English, but as soon as you told him to track back he would reply: 'I don’t understand'
Your stock was quite low upon arriving at Southampton in 2004, but you had a pretty good season despite the team finishing bottom of the league. Would you say it was a career turning point?
Paul Woollard, Winchester
Yeah, that season was massive for me. I went there and my career could have gone either way. Paul Sturrock signed me but then got sacked. Steve Wigley came in and wasn’t playing me much.
But then Harry Redknapp arrived, James Beattie was sold and suddenly Kevin Phillips and me were the two strikers up front. Harry gave me loads of confidence and I went out and got 13 goals in the second half of the season. That was when I felt I had arrived in the Premier League, and I got called up by England that summer too.
You didn’t score in any of your first 18 matches for Liverpool after signing for £7 million in 2005. How tough a period was that? What did Rafa Benitez say?
Natasha Woodford, via Facebook
Yeah, I went through a little barren spell – well, quite a big barren spell [laughs] – and I really just wanted to head back to Southampton as fast as possible. I was thinking, ‘What have I done?’ Thankfully I stuck it out. The manager wanted me to do different things to what I was used to. I was doing them and working really hard, but I was trying to score that goal while playing a lot deeper. It got to the stage where I was saying to myself, ‘I’m going to have to start being a bit more selfish,’ so I played higher up the pitch... perhaps against the manager’s wishes.
I finally started to score a few goals and the fans wanted me in the team more, though the manager wanted me in the team less! That was possibly where we clashed a little bit, but I’ve got nothing bad to say about Rafa. He was first class.
What was it like to be on the pitch for ‘The Gerrard Final’ in 2006? Were you always confident that Liverpool would get back into the game, despite going 2-0 down against West Ham so early?
Andy Greenhalgh, via Facebook
Firstly, I had a goal disallowed that was actually onside, so let’s just get that one in there quickly! West Ham and [manager] Alan Pardew had been doing these dances after games, so our team talk at half-time was more or less, ‘We can’t see them all dancing around the cup!’
Stevie won us the game, obviously. He scored two fantastic goals to get us back in it and force extra time. I do look at the medal sometimes and just think, ‘Maybe I should have given it to Stevie!’
There was lots of scepticism when you first got into the England squad. Why was that, and how good did it feel to prove the doubters wrong by scoring 22 times in your international career?
Freddie Tomlinson, via Twitter
It sounds good when you say it like that. I’ve had that my whole career. When I was first starting out fans looked at me and would say, ‘How can he play football?’ I can remember coming on for England at Old Trafford against Poland [in October 2005] and getting booed by the fans. That was quite tough.
At times, there has been a lazy perception that if you play me then you have to play long ball, but over time I have proved that there’s much more to my game than that. I’ve had to work a lot harder, as fans had this perception of me before they’d seen me play. I think David O’Leary wasn’t picking me on the basis of my appearance rather than my ability. I think that I warranted a place in the team near the end of my Villa career before joining Southampton.
How did the robot go down at David Beckham’s digs before the World Cup? Which song were you dancing to and when did those moves last come out?
Jennifer Blake, via Facebook
They still come out every now and again, yeah [laughs]. I can’t remember what song it was back then, but it went down pretty well, which was why it went on to become the celebration.
I think ITV or someone were filming at the party, and when it went out all the lads messaged me saying, “Did you see it? You have got to start doing it as a goal celebration!”
Why did you grab onto Brett Sancho’s dreadlocks to score against Trinidad & Tobago at the World Cup when you were about 2ft taller than the bloke?
Rory Allen, via Facebook
It was like a natural movement. I didn’t even know I’d done it until I saw all the photographs afterwards. When you’re challenging for an aerial ball you’re just trying everything to get above your man.
I honestly didn’t realise I’d done it, but obviously it’s bad when you see it back. He didn’t say anything after the game, but since then Kenwyne Jones has told me I wasn’t particularly well liked over in Trinidad, so I haven’t holidayed there!