In 2009, a reporter asked Peter Crouch what he’d be if he wasn’t a footballer, to which he famously replied “a virgin”. In those two short words, he’d immortalised himself. But since that soundbite, Crouch has become something far more important – a football icon in the least traditional sense. Because unlike Messi, who is worshiped for his ability, or Totti, who is revered for his loyalty, we love Crouch simply for being human.
The self-deprecating striker, who recently announced his retirement, was, of course, a good footballer. You don’t score 100-plus Premier League goals if you aren’t. Those who’ve watched Crouch over the years – all two metres of him – will tell you he was more than just a goalscorer. He had excellent balance, masterful control and a penchant for the sublime (see: Man City 2012), bringing a whole new meaning to the cliché, ‘good touch for a big lad’. And as the record holder for headed Premier League goals, he wasn’t bad in the air (just ask Alan Shearer, Les Ferdinand and Dion Dublin, all of whom were outdone by Crouch).
Crouch’s career, like his playing style and appearance, was defined by contrast. At his peak, he basked in the glow of powerhouses such as Liverpool and Tottenham, yet he was equally at home playing for Burnley or Stoke. It was the Potteries, in fact, where he spent most of his career, scoring 60 Premier League goals across seven fantastic seasons; quite an achievement considering two of those came under Tony Pulis – a man who liked to support his lone striker with five midfielders. Not that you would hear Crouch complain.
The lanky forward was first and foremost a lover of football, delighted to be playing the game professionally, and acutely aware of his own good fortune. This made him easier to warm to than someone like ex-Spurs teammate Benoît Assou-Ekotto, for instance, who happily admitted playing just for money. On retiring, Crouch hammered this humility home, tweeting: ‘Our wonderful game has given me everything. I’m so thankful to everyone who helped me get there and to help me stay there for so long.’
Thankful he may be, but it was Peter Crouch who got Peter Crouch to the summit – and his route to the top was tougher than most. Constant bullying meant his teenage years were blighted by confidence issues, which were as hard to tackle on the pitch as they were off it. Speaking on the BBC’s A Royal Team Talk: Tackling Mental Health, he said: “I used to cry at night when I was a kid of 14-15. Although I make light of [it] now, no teenager wants to go through these things.”
This hardship would have stopped many youngsters before they’d even begun, but Crouch took it on the chin and is now the first in the room to laugh at himself. This is something that endears us to him today, a defining characteristic that is learned, not taught.
Once he had proven himself as a teenager and broken into the first team at QPR, he then had to get the crowd on board. Those in the stands would write the lanky unknown off before he’d even kicked a ball, confident that a six-foot-seven beanpole wasn’t going to answer their goalscoring prayers. Wherever he went from there, things were the same, even on the international stage. Making his debut for England against Colombia in 2005, Crouch was booed off the bench. His biggest worry was that his mum would be upset.
Of course, England and Crouch went on to become one of football’s unlikely love affairs. He scored 22 goals in 42 appearances for the Three Lions, which is a record to make any striker proud. That he was only ever Plan B, playing second fiddle to the likes of Wayne Rooney, Michael Owen and Jermain Defoe, makes it even more remarkable.
Most will best remember his time with England for that game against Jamaica. It was England’s final run out prior to the 2006 World Cup, and in a team that included David Beckham, Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard, Crouch stole the show. Not only did he score a wonderful hat-trick, he also brought out one of the most memorable celebrations: the robot. And then, after scoring a trademark header against Trinidad & Tobago in the World Cup proper, he brought it out again.
The now retired Crouch maintains that if you told him the way his career would pan out when he was 17, he’d think you were bonkers. And considering he was on loan at Dulwich Hamlet at the time, he might have a point. As well as an England goalscoring ratio of over one in two – Rooney, Charlton, eat your heart out – Crouch won the FA Cup, played in a Champions League final, and won three player of the season awards at three different clubs. Not too shabby for a beanpole.
He was also great to watch. Towering headers, immense volleys and superb technique were all part of his repertoire, and all were accomplished with an infectious grin – just check out this perfect hat-trick against Arsenal if you want proof. Crouch took pleasure from the game like a fan because, ultimately, he was one; just a normal man living the dream, a hero for those disillusioned with rising wages and player-fan disparity. This enthusiasm was replicated off the pitch, too, which in the era of ultra-PR-friendly players was a breath of fresh air. In a league full of robots, Peter Crouch had soul.
This relatability didn’t go under the radar, and in the latter stages of his career Crouch won plaudits for his self-deprecating sense of humour. Twitter users now revere him for his endless quips, but to get the best out of Crouch, you need to listen to the podcast he struck up in 2018. It’s here that he shares inexhaustible anecdotes about his time as a footballer, giving fans a glimpse into the ridiculous world to which he belonged for over two decades. Whether it’s nearly killing Dirk Kuyt, ‘discovering’ Oliver Bierhoff or being bullied by John Paintsil, you know you’re in for a laugh.
There was a point in his career, however, that Crouch threatened to move above his station and lose the humility that set him apart. Naturally, of all people to put an end to such an injustice, it had to be Roy Keane. Crouch was playing for Liverpool at the time and had bought himself a swanky new Aston Martin. But, after just a few days driving it – uncomfortable days by his own admission – Crouch found himself alongside Keane at some traffic lights.
Reflecting on the situation, he said: “I had the shades on, listening to garage music, thinking I was the man, and he firmly let me know I wasn’t the man. As he sped off, I looked at myself in the mirror and I sold the car that week. I took about a 20-grand hit on it.”
Stories like these endear Crouch to the everyday football fan, and they are seemingly endless. His unique insights into modern football have proved so popular, in fact, that he was even able to host his own mini-festival, Crouchfest, last month, which welcomed a 3,000-strong crowd, plus famous faces such as Liam Gallagher and Katherine Jenkins. Can you imagine any other footballer who could possibly pull that off?
As easy as it is to wax lyrical about Crouch the man, it should not detract from what he achieved in football. He forged an excellent career using a unique toolset, and he should be admired for overcoming adversity. From being booed by his own fans to being branded a “freak”, the now-retired striker has put up with more than anyone should in any work environment.
Those same fans didn’t expect the lanky kid from Macclesfield to reach such heights, but if there’s one thing we now know about Peter Crouch, it’s that you don’t write him off. This is a man who has more Premier League assists than Paul Scholes and more Premier League goals than Dennis Bergkamp, remember. And a man who made us laugh doing it.
By Ryan Hill @ryanhill93