With appearances at two FIFA World Cup™, 42 caps for England and 22 international goals, Stoke City striker Peter Crouch has more than made his mark for his country, something he believes that grew from his exposure at the FIFA U-20 World Cup 1999.
While still in his first spell at Tottenham Hotspur, Crouch was part of Chris Ramsey’s side that made the trip to Nigeria, cutting his teeth on the international stage. It was ultimately a fruitless trip for the Three Lions, finishing bottom of their group, but for Crouch the impact was felt for years to come.
“I’m so glad I did it, it was a great experience,” the former Liverpool and Portsmouth target-man said. “Being part of a big tournament like the World Cup, albeit the U-20s, was a great experience and I enjoyed it. The atmosphere was something I hadn’t experienced before, there were packed-out stadiums and as an 18-year-old it was great.”
The team got their first taste of action in West Africa in the newly opened Sani Abacha Stadium in Kano, with 19,000 fans adding colour and verve to their Group D opener against the USA. It ended in a 1-0 defeat, but by then Crouch had already felt the fervour of support in the host nation, in what was a journey into uncharted territory for the youngsters.
“We were going into the unknown, I had never been to Africa - let alone Nigeria - and the fans were crazy, it was a great experience,” he recalled. “You could tell that they were so pleased to have it there and it was a huge deal for them. The atmosphere in the stadiums was mental, but it was great and good to be part of.
“The shock of arriving and people welcoming you - I don’t think we really realised how big it was until we got there, but all the lads embraced it and it probably stood a lot of us in good stead for the future.”
Bigger and better
The future for Crouch was to feature trips to both Germany 2006 and South Africa 2010 with the senior side, where he got the former off to the perfect start in what turned out to be an awkward match against Trinidad and Tobago.
“We were expected to beat Trinidad and Tobago but it got to about 60-70 minutes and we hadn’t scored yet, but I managed to get the opening goal,” he said. “Obviously it was a great relief to win the game but when reflecting after, scoring in the World Cup was certainly a career high for me.”
Having already had his first taste of FIFA competition prior to the trip to Germany made a difference too, Crouch said, thanks to the resemblance to his trip seven years earlier. “It was very similar to the U-20 World Cup. Obviously it’s more high-profile and it’s been a real honour to have played in them.
“Germany and South Africa were very different tournaments, we were unlucky to go out to Portugal on penalties in Germany, but they were great experiences and I really enjoyed them. Having the whole nation behind you, the atmosphere at the games and having friends and family watching you is a great experience and I put it up there with the best I’ve had.”
Those FIFA World Cup memories form part of an impressive England record, where he has managed more than a goal every other game, sits seventeenth in the nation’s all-time top-scorers list and is one of a select group to have scored a hat-trick for his country. “I’d obviously have loved to add to the tally, but I’m pleased with the amount of goals I’ve scored for England,” he said.
“Whenever I’ve played I’ve never let myself down, have scored goals and really enjoyed my time playing for my country. When you eventually look back at the end of your career you remember the goals and experiences you’ve had and it’s a real privilege to have done it.”
With England set to battle at Turkey 2013, beginning in Group E with against Chile, Egypt and Iraq, Crouch emphasised the fact that those travelling should cherish the opportunity to play on the global stage. “It might be their first tournaments, but what I would say is go and enjoy it, that’s what I did,” he explained.
“If you get to play, you don’t know if you’re going to play in another one, so you want to leave everything there, do your best and try to appreciate it. Obviously the games are the most important things so you prepare right, make sure you’re ready for them and just enjoy it.”
While appearing at a youth tournament is by no means a guarantee that you will make a career in the upper echelons of the game, a number of members of the 1999 squad - and some of Crouch’s team-mates at Stoke City - prove that it can lay the path to a career of top-flight club and international football. “Quite a few of that squad have gone on to play for England and at a high level, Ashley Cole was out there, Andy Johnson, and Matt Etherington too, who I’ve spoken with about it since joining Stoke.”
Alongside him and Etherington at Stoke have also been Matthew Upson and, the now retired, Michael Owen, who both featured at the 1997 U-20 edition in Malaysia. “Club football and international football are so different, but having been part of the youth set-up I definitely think helps. Of those three players, all apart from Matty [Etherington], who has been very unlucky, have gone on to represent the full squad and I think it’s no coincidence. It prepares you well for tournament football.”
While Crouch’s scoring form internationally has been consistent, he’s also managed to display his knack for getting goals at every club he’s been at. Currently Crouch ranks alongside the likes of Andy Cole, Les Ferdinand, Marcus Bent, Nick Barmby and Craig Bellamy as the only players to have scored for six different sides in the English Premier League.
Though he’s always performed well at wherever he’s been, Crouch does wish he could have spent longer at one club had he had the opportunity. “Circumstances have meant I’ve had to move around, for whatever reason,” he conceded, “but I’ve always had a good relationship with the fans and people at whatever club I’ve been at and when I go back I always feel welcome. I’ve enjoyed my time at whatever club I’ve been at and scored a few goals too.”
With two years left on his contract at Stoke, while unsurprisingly not talking definitively given his many moves and the unpredictability of the transfer window, Crouch is looking to next season with The Potters. Having now spent five years in the Premier League, Stoke are unarguably an established side in the division, but have this season seen something of a move away from their renowned style of ‘traditionally English’, direct football.
It’s a change that has brought about some criticism regarding a loss of identity, but Crouch believes it is a positive progression for the club, who finished 13th in the table this season. “If you want to compete for the top ten and win trophies then you have to evolve, we’ve got better players in than we ever had and it may be a transition period, but hopefully we can turn it on next year,” he argued.
“Look what Wigan have achieved [winning the FA Cup], and if they can achieve it so can Stoke City. We got to a final a couple of years ago and to go on to win a trophy would be fantastic for the club, I think it’s what it needs, and to cement ourselves in the top ten. I think that’s where we should be.”