He’s played for seven Premier League clubs and been capped 42 times, but last month he finally hung up his boots. So what’s next for one of Britain’s best-loved footballers?
by Sam Wollaston
Folded up in the corner of a sofa, wearing skinny black jeans and a black shirt, limbs tucked away wherever they will go, Peter Crouch looks a bit like a sleeping bat. (Except he isn’t hanging upside down, obviously). He is tired, he says. Not from a season sitting on benches, in Stoke and Burnley; or from being out on the town, dancing like a robot; but because there is a new addition to the Crouch family: child number four, aged four weeks when we meet in a fancy London hotel.
He wanted to call his second son Divock, after Divock Origi, whose heroics helped Liverpool on their way to winning the Champions League (Crouch has a place in his heart for all his many former clubs, but a special one for the Reds). But his wife – the model and television personality Abbey Clancy – wasn’t having it. So the little lad is called Jack.
How is he? “Good as gold. He just wakes up for his bottle, he’s not like a crier,” says Crouch, with a proud little yawn. And how’s Dad, at dadding? “Hands on. Yeah, I’m good. I enjoy it, it’s good fun.”
There is also another new baby – a weekly football show called Back of the Net (nothing to do with Alan Partridge) that will go out on Amazon Prime Video. Crouch, who is 38, will host alongside the broadcaster Gabby Logan and the comedian John Bishop. There will be a studio element, with an audience, interviews and, Crouch promises, proper guests, his heroes.
For example? Can he say, he asks the Amazon publicity woman who is sitting in with a notepad, playing the role of the ref. Harry Redknapp, his old gaffer, and John Barnes were in the pilot; he can say that.
Back of the Net is going to be relaxed and humorous, he says. We will see people in unexpected situations. He mentions they have a well-known football hard man reviewing kids’ toys. Roy Keane? “Ha ha ha, no comment.”
Hang on. John Bishop is another Red. Is this going to be a Liverpool love-in? “John will be biased, 100%, but I won’t be. I’ve got a big affection for Liverpool, but I’ve got big affection for Tottenham, QPR, Aston Villa, Southampton, Portsmouth, all the clubs that I’ve played for. I’ve played for enough clubs to have a varied view on things.”
Since failing to break into the first team at Tottenham as a teenager and getting loaned out to Dulwich Hamlet and IFK Hässleholm in the Swediesh third tier, Crouchy has spent two decades proving people wrong. The wrong shape to be a striker, the wrong shape to be any kind of footballer, he scored 108 Premier League goals for the seven Premier League clubs he played for, including ridiculous bicycle kicks – then he really was hanging upside down in the air – and that wonder volley against Manchester City. He scored 42 goals for Liverpool. And, after initially being booed by England supporters, he was capped 42 times for his country, scored 22 times and went to two World Cups.
Recently, he has been proving himself in different ways. With his (second) autobiography, his comic tweeting and his excellent That Peter Crouch Podcast on the BBC, he has demonstrated qualities not often associated with or witnessed in his profession: insightfulness, awareness of some of the absurdities of his world, a sense of humour. Crouchy is funny. “Summer for me is about time with the family,” he Tweeted, with a picture of him feeding giraffes. An interview once asked he what he would be if he hadn’t been a footballer. “A virgin,” came the reply.
Back of the Net won’t just be a trip back down Lad Way, he promises, a return to Baddiel and Skinner’s Fantasy Football League. “I think maybe that’s been done and football’s moving in a different direction,” he says, citing the rise of the women’s game. Logan will help to ensure that the programme is not just blokey banter. “It’s not just young lads who like football any more,” Crouch says. “It’s a huge range of different people – everyone, really.”
Apart from Clancy, that is. She has been known to call her husband at 10 to three on a Saturday to ask what his plans are for the afternoon. He doesn’t mind that she’s not interested – in fact, it’s nice to come home and talk about other things, he says. She wasn’t interested in the Women’s World Cup either. It’s the game, not him.
Did he watch it? “Yeah. It was very good; the standard was good, the coverage was good, England did great. I would’ve liked to have seen them win it, obviously, but America were the best team in the tournament.”
It will help more girls into football, he says, although his daughters – Sophia, 8, and Liberty, 4 – seem to have inherited their mother’s apathy towards the game. The elder takes an interest when it suits her, like when some of the boys at holiday camp asked her if her dad really was Peter Crouch. Suddenly, he says, she wanted him to come and pick her up. “And she came on the field after the last game at Burnley; they enjoyed that.”
Football may have broadened its appeal and become more inclusive over the course of the 23 years Crouch has played the game, but it has also seen a return to the bad old days. There are more incidents of overt racism in the stands. “Yeah, that’s something we don’t want to see or hear,” he says.
And is it not extraordinary that there are still no current Premier League footballers who are gay and out? It’s like a last bastion of homophobia. “There is talk of a gay footballer coming out,” he says. “But I don’t think it would be an issue now; it shouldn’t be, in this day and age.”
Crouch has had abuse hurled at him from the stands, including – since starting out as a teenager – chants of “freak”. And it did get to him. “Of course, I was a bit conscious of being so skinny and tall. I’m different-looking to the average footballer. So, obviously, when I started getting those chants it was hurtful, and it pushed me to the point where I thought: ‘Do I really want to put myself through this?’ Yes, I had doubts and things like that, but I look back on it now and I’m proud of coming through that.”
He’s not just different-looking. Crouch doesn’t behave like your stereotypical Premier League player, either. “I think footballers are perhaps too guarded. Maybe I’ve let people in a bit more, just being a bit more honest.”
No, it’s not to do with being more middle-class, he says. (His dad worked in advertising – Crouch did work experience at his agency and loved it. He says he might have gone into something like that – as well as remaining a virgin, obviously – if he hadn’t become a footballer). “I had quite a traditional upbringing, but, you know, I grew up around football and footballers, I was the same; I’ve got a lot of my mates from football.”
He says the football industry and many players take themselves way too seriously. “If you’re a player at the highest level, and you get told you’re amazing, day in, day out, it may be hard to climb down from there,” he says, raising his hand from the sofa, to indicate the highest level.
But Crouch wasn’t always up there (except literally). Perhaps that helped make him who is, I say. He says the loan in Sweden grounded him and made him really work for success.
“Then I had to struggle at QPR; I went up and down, got to the Premier League, but even at 23 I wasn’t quite ready for the Premier League. I went back down. I wasn’t Michael Owen, I didn’t burst on and score a goal for England at 18. I sometimes think the way I did it …”, he pauses, then laughs. “No, listen, I’d rather have been Michael Owen.”
But imagine listening to That Michael Owen Podcast. Exactly; now you’re imagining switching it off.
When we meet, Crouch hasn’t officially hung up the size 12s, and he jokes about taking over from Gareth Bale at Real Madrid, or Neymar at Paris Saint-Germain. But a couple of days later he announces his retirement, on Twitter. And the love comes gushing in, practically national-treasure levels. There is nothing like quitting to silence the knockers and the doubters.
He is obviously thinking a lot about it when we meet. He talks about missing the game. “Scoring a goal in front of 50,000 people, getting everyone on their feet, you can’t replicate that. How else do you get 50,000 people to stand up by something you’ve done?”
It’s not easy, retiring in your 30s. He thinks there should be more help for players when they reach the end of their playing days. “You got all this money but if you don’t invest it, it finishes and you’ve got no other skills, no other qualifications in anything else. It can be hard and you can see why players get depressed, they drink, or gamble, or get divorced; it happens a lot. I think there needs to be some sort of care for players.”
Crouch feels fortunate, in that he has options that other retiring players don’t have. He’s got his coaching badges, that’s always an option. Oh, and he’s even got the GNVQ in Leisure and Tourism he did as a teenager at Spurs (Ledley King was in the same class). “I could open a swimming pool or something, be a lifeguard.”
But for now the media stuff is going well. He loves doing That Peter Crouch Podcast and people love listening to it. “I literally sit there in a pub, having a beer, chatting to a couple of lads about football. It’s like the best job ever.” And now the Amazon show is starting.
Move over Gary Lineker, is that what we are saying? “Ha ha ha, no, I’m not saying that. I think you only get out what you put in and he has obviously put a hell of a lot of work into where he is. Because he’s so good at what he does, you forget how good he was as a player. If I can have half the career he has had, that would be good.”
Will he be paid as much as Lineker? “No, I will not. He does very well.” Probably unsurprisingly, he won’t tell me how much he will be paid.
Will he be political, as Lineker is? “No. He enjoys it. Obviously, I’ve got my opinions, but they won’t be getting shared.”
Red or blue, though – talking not Liverpool football teams, but politics? “Ha, green.” Leave or remain? “Oh, no comment, I’m not getting involved in that; it just angers people. I think that’s genuinely why people enjoyed the podcast, because every other podcast I looked at was a Brexit podcast. Everyone is talking about leaving and remaining – it’s like, let’s put that down for a second and have a laugh.”
Back of the Net is available on Tuesday evenings on Amazon Prime