Stoke City's new giant striker helped them fell Manchester United at the weekend. Here he reveals how his dad brought him up the hard way.
Does it annoy you that people talk about your height and the fact that you’re bigger than everybody else?
Not really. Obviously you’re always going to notice my size and what-have-you. People always seem to remark on my height rather than just talking about the football, but it’s something I’ve come to accept over the years. I’m different to a lot of players and that’s often been an advantage for me on the pitch.
Do you think, because you’re physically different, you get tougher treatment from opposing centre halves?
Yeah sometimes. Obviously centre halves are gonna do anything to try and unsettle you, but dealing with their little methods is part and parcel of my job.
You’ve got really skinny legs, surely that means it hurts more when you get kicked?
(Laughs) No not at all! I certainly don’t think so. Although I’ve never had bulky legs so I couldn’t tell you whether it hurts any less or more! As a kid I was always skinny – it’s always been the way I am and I’m fine with that. My Dad taught me a harsh lesson when I was younger, to never shirk a tackle. And I haven’t since…
That sounds ominous…What sort of a lesson did he teach you?
I was training at Spurs school of excellence one evening and my dad was watching on. I was 13, around the age you’re a little bit scared of getting hurt in big tackles. Anyway, he saw me bottle a 50/50 challenge, and he was so disappointed in me that he drove home there and then and left me to make my own way home across London. But I learned my lesson and in some ways it defined me as a player.
Are you sure he hadn’t just parked around the corner and waited for you?
No, he definitely left – he was waiting at home for me when I got back. My trip home took in about four trains and was a pretty daunting experience at night for a young lad. I’m grateful I learnt that lesson early on, though, because in football you have to be whole-hearted. There are so many players that want to make it, and if you don’t have 100% will to succeed then you have no chance. That’s the bare minimum. You’ve got to have the ability obviously, but you need to be brave too, and to have the passion and the desire. That’s what my dad was trying to show me that night, and to be honest I don’t think I’d be here today without the lessons he taught me.
So 15 years down the line, let’s say there’s another junior Crouch shirking a 50/50 in the Spurs academy. Do you leave or do you stick around?
I’m not sure if I’d leave him! Stern words are enough, I think leaving me to fend for myself at that age was a bit harsh to be honest!
You’re a fan’s favourite for club and country nowadays, but that wasn’t always the case. Do you think the stick that you used to get from rival fans, or sometimes from your own supporters, has mellowed over the years as you’ve proved yourself as a footballer?
I think so. When I first started out it was hard, people were judging me before they’d even seen me play. That was difficult at times. But once you overcome that, once people get to know you and see you play they realise that you can do a decent job and they soon change their tune. I don’t take myself as seriously as some of the other players out there, which I think goes a long way with supporters. Plus over the years I’ve managed to prove myself in the Champions League and at international level for England, and the more people that see me play, the less stick I tend to get. But I’ve had to earn their respect.
You must’ve been a very young man, going out on loan, playing at lower league grounds and getting a bit of stick. Did the abuse ever get you down?
It made me angry for sure, and probably spurred me on to be the player I am today. I’ve always given 100% wherever I’ve gone, I think fans appreciate that and it’s always nice to get a good reception when I go back to one of my former clubs. Also, I think people can see that I always enjoy playing football and that I feel genuinely lucky to be in the position that I am in. I know I’m very fortunate to be doing a job I love and I would never take that for granted. But yeah, sometimes I look back at the early days, when it was difficult to prove myself, and I’m proud to have come through it all because it has made me a stronger person.
You’ve got to be one of the only guys, in modern football anyway, who’s played in the Ryman League and also in the World Cup and in a Champions League final. Having seen the grass-roots side of football, do you appreciate what you have now a bit more?
I think so, yeah. There are lads who, right from the start, are destined to be top, top players. But my story’s a little bit different. I did go down to play for Dulwich Hamlett in the Ryman League at 17. I could’ve sulked about it but I got my head down and I think it made me a better player. Playing at that level toughened me up and made me more determined to succeed at the highest level. I was there thinking: ‘I don’t want to be playing in the Ryman League my whole life, I want to be in The Premiership.’ I always felt I had enough ability, and obviously I’m very thankful and very lucky to be where I am now.
You also spent a spell with a lower league team over in Sweden. Did that put you off playing abroad for life?
(Laughing) Not at all – I had the best time of my life over there! I absolutely loved it in Sweden, it was brilliant. I was only 18, I went over there on-loan from Tottenham for three months with another lad, Alton Thelwell. I scored a few goals, although the standard was nothing to write home about. It was my first time away from home, and I had a great time. The football was terrible, but I didn’t want to come back really!
As an England fan it often frustrates the hell out of me that you get such a raw deal from international referees. At times it has seemed like you’re not even allowed to challenge for the ball without being penalised. How do you feel about that?
It’s so frustrating. With my size and the way I am, I think I’ve always got a rough ride from referees anyway, but then I found out that before the 2006 World Cup, FIFA actually put a directive out to the referees telling them to keep an eye on me particularly, because they felt I was getting away with too much pushing and pulling. I’ve certainly had to temper my game from playing in the Premiership to when I’m playing in Europe or for England. At international level when I’m jumping up trying to win headers I sometimes feel I’m penalised for not doing a lot wrong – that’s probably the toughest part. All I can do is make sure I don’t jump with my arms, I don’t lean in, I don’t back in to defenders – I’ve just got to be extra cautious.
It seems to happen a lot when you’ve got continental referees who’ve still got that directive in their minds. Does it feel like you’re fighting an uphill battle before you’ve even started?
Exactly, yeah. It was disappointing to hear that FIFA made an example of me, things like that are hard to take. I play within the rules of the game whenever I go out on the pitch. But over the years I’ve had to adapt my game and I’m probably a better player for it.
Talking of international football, your goalscoring record for England is exemplary by any standards. What is it about the international scene that gets the best out of you?
I wouldn’t say I am any more motivated to play internationals rather than club games, but I do absolutely love playing for my country. Obviously it comes with a lot of pressure but that’s exactly where you want to be, at the pinnacle. I grew up watching England in World Cups and dreaming about being a part of that, and so to have actually been out there playing and scoring is a fantastic feeling.
What other sports are you into?
I was always playing tennis as a kid, I absolutely loved it. I bang in a decent serve from up here – that’s my game, serve ‘n’ volley. I’ve also been playing a lot of golf lately, but only in secret because my game isn’t up to a decent level yet. It’s a work in progress but I love it – golf’s one of those things that once you start, you can’t stop, and I’m addicted now. I’m just dying to get better and I’ve been out on the course almost every day after training, even in the winter! I have all the gear, no idea at the minute, but I’m getting there.
I didn’t notice a flash sports car in the car park out there. What are you driving at the moment?
Mine’s the Audi Q7. I’ve had a few more flashy motors in my life but I’m very happy with a nice comfortable SUV nowadays – it’s good to fit the golf clubs in!
You’ve had many nicknames in your time. Which is your favourite?
Like you say, I’ve had a few over the years. But I’ll go with ‘Crouchie.’ It’s the most boring one but I’m happy with it. At least it’s not abusing me!
Have you ever been in trouble with the law?
Not really. I think the worst I’ve ever had was when I was a kid. I grew up not far from Wembley, so we used to go to a lot of the big games there. On this occasion I remember walking with my dad to watch Chelsea v Man U in the 1994 FA Cup final. We were running a bit late and risked missing the kick off and my dad convinced himself that he knew a short cut. So we did a little cut-through and went wrong and ended up having to climb through a garden. Luckily the people weren’t in so we rushed through and jumped over the back fence but as we landed we bumped straight into a couple of patrol coppers who thought we’d been robbing the place. They took us down to the station for questioning and we missed the game. I wasn’t charged, though.
Tell it to the judge, Crouchie. Here’s another tester… Are you any good in the kitchen?
No, I’m horrendous. It sounds sexist, but my Missus does all that! I find pasta’s pretty easy, so I can do a bit of chicken and pasta, or I do a little bake which is very nice. That’s about as far as I go.
Chicken and pasta’s not to be sniffed at – some footballers I speak to can’t even stretch to Marmite on toast! Who’s your best friend in football?
I’m good mates with Gareth Barry. And I still speak to Glen Johnson regularly. I’d say those two are probably my closest mates in the game.
Who’s your most famous celebrity pal?
I don’t really have any, how embarrassing! I was going to say Becks, but to be honest I haven’t even got his mobile number!
Who’s the hardest man in football?
One of the hardest in the tackle is Stephen Warnock at Villa. When I was at Liverpool he was a nutter in the tackle, even in training! Stevie G is up there as well.
Can you handle yourself?
I’ve never had any problems, but I wouldn’t like to start having fights! I don’t get into too many scrapes, but on the pitch I can handle myself. I like to think that I’m deceptively strong.
I’ll take your word for it! If you could play the lead role in any film, what would you play?
I don’t know if they would cast me for it but I’d be Russell Crowe’s character in Gladiator. I’m not saying I’d be the best Gladiator, but I enjoyed that film and I wouldn’t mind whacking on the costume!
What gets you out of bed in the morning?
Normally my cats! We’ve got two of the little blighters and as soon as the sun comes up they’re jumping on the bed and scratching my face.
What was the last thing you lost?
I lost my phone last week, that’s always annoying. So now I’ve got a big builder’s brick for a phone at the minute. It’s an old-school Nokia, you drop it and it bounces back up! It’s one of those which is always handy to have in reserve.
When was the last time you lost your temper?
During a match the other day – I felt I should’ve had a penalty and it wasn’t given. It’s always football that gets me angry and most of the time it’s ref’s decisions!
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