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The Crouch dimension

The self-effacing centre-forward shines a light on the abuse, excesses and infantilisation of modern footballers. 

The holiday rule for young English footballers is that “you go where the footballers two years older than you are going”, explains Peter Crouch in I, Robot, the second volume of his memoirs. Then half the Premier League run into one another and get plastered together. Over his 20-year playing career, Crouch watched the epicentre shift from Tenerife and Ayia Napa, to Florida, and now Dubai. When in England, footballers shop in a select few expensive boutiques (such as Flannels in Manchester), and eat black cod in the same few restaurants (notably Novikov in Mayfair).

Crouch, an England centre-forward who scored the most headed goals in the Premier League’s history, finally retired this summer aged 38. But despite always feeling perfectly at home in his industry, he retained an outsider’s view of it. Perhaps that’s because he is that most exotic breed in the multicultural Premier League: a middle-class Englishman. The son of an advertising man, he grew up in Ealing, west London. Add to that a sense of humour, and he always kept enough distance to laugh at his colleagues, as well as at his own 6ft 7in beanpole physique. Asked once in a poll, “What would you be if you weren’t a footballer?”, he famously replied, “A virgin”. (In fact, he’s married to the model Abbey Clancy.)

His two books are a mix of humour and amateur anthropology of the Premier League. Po-faced as this sounds, I was left wishing for less of the former and more of the latter. Nonetheless, both intentionally and unintentionally, his books help explain the spectacular banality of modern footballers’ culture.

Crouch had the luck to play in exactly the right era: a time when heading in crosses was still a core skill, before it was all but eradicated by foreign managers pushing a cerebral short-passing game; and when salaries were soaring in tandem with global television rights. Many of his teammates had to think up ever more creative ways to spend their money. How to be a Footballer, in particular, has fun with their excesses. This is a world, Crouch writes, “where one teammate [later identified as Djibril Cissé] comes to training in a bright-red suit with matching top hat and cane and glasses without any glass in them, and another spends his evening hiring a Ferrari, parking it outside a nightclub and then lying on the bonnet directly in the eyeline of all the girls coming out”. (In football parlance at its most polite, any woman under 30 is a “girl”.)

It’s hard to read this stuff without moralising, although as Crouch points out, some of that is snobbery about uneducated young people with money. This tendency peaked in the pre-Brexit era, when it was considered witty to dismiss successful white working-class people such as Wayne and Coleen Rooney as “chavs”.

Most footballers, Crouch explains (and he never exempts himself) are “boy-men”: “They come straight out of school into football, which has half as many rules.” From adolescence onwards, they are infantilised by their agents, managers, clubs and entourage members who minister to their every need, to the point that when players travel abroad for a match they sometimes don’t know which country they are in and cannot be trusted with their own passports. The former England goalkeeper Rob Green’s habit of reading a book over a pot of tea in his Hampstead local is considered so extraordinary that it gets three mentions across Crouch’s two books. 

Yet it would be wrong to conclude that footballers are stupid. A friend of mine who played professionally for a few years, before escaping to study international relations at university, says that it’s rather that they become “narrow”, because everyone they know is always urging them to focus only on football. 

Reading Crouch’s books, more theories about footballers’ banality bubble up. He is clearly a bright man, but his chosen life-path seems to have stifled any tendency to deep thought. Whenever he threatens to steer towards it in his books, he cuts himself off with a one-liner. Partly this must be an effect of wealth: why bother with deep thought when you’re on £5m a year? Partly it’s his personality: he is a well-adjusted extrovert, with lots of friends, who liked his job, and worked hard at it without taking it too seriously. Partly it’s an effect of Englishness: in England humour is used to stop conversations before they can get boring, emotional or technical. And partly it’s because deep thought is a handicap in football.

When you have to perform in front of millions of television viewers, Crouch notes, it doesn’t help to think too hard about the consequences of failure. In fact, any extraneous thoughts at all will distract you from your task. “So instead,” he writes, “we behave as if we’re the title characters in a sad children’s cartoon, The Boy Who Thought Too Little.” The late American writer David Foster Wallace made the same point about tennis: it takes a certain unimaginative cast of mind to play match-point at Wimbledon without collapsing with nerves.

Footballers are further infantilised by their disconnection from the rest of society. Everyone whom the player meets in adulthood wants a piece of him, and so his agent, though he also wants a piece, acts as the gatekeeper. In Crouch’s first decade in the game, the chief threat to players’ private lives came from the tabloids with their daily football scandals, typically supplied either by the caste of ambitious young women who feast off footballers, or by paid police officers. (Some years ago, when a Manchester United player crashed his car and called the police, the first person to arrive on the scene was a tabloid reporter.)

Crouch dates the peak of tabloid hysteria to the 2006 World Cup, when an army of reporters spent weeks around the England camp in Baden-Baden trying to find or fabricate stories about the players or their wives and girlfriends (Wags). Crouch describes a photographer commandeering a man to bump into Coleen Rooney in a hotel bar, then snapping her when she stumbled: “Hey presto – a big photo splash in the paper, the headline all about Coleen being so drunk she couldn’t stand up.”

Since then, the tabloids’ collapsing circulations and staff numbers have diminished their power over footballers. (The papers’ decline may also end up improving the sanity of British political life: whereas other countries are only just discovering “fake news”, the UK has been distorted by it for over a century.) But nowadays the biggest threat to footballers comes from the smartphone. Whenever a player steps out of the door of his Cheshire mansion, in Alderley Edge or Prestbury, someone pops up to ask for a selfie. When he goes out for dinner, the rest of the restaurant films him eating. 

Some players, forever being treated either as demigods or props for someone else’s home-screen wallpaper, come to feel entitled to use ordinary humans for their own ends. “I’ve met some [players] where it’s almost impossible to accurately describe how big a fool they are,” writes Crouch. “In football, you do a job on the pitch and people will turn a blind eye to your behaviour off it. They’ll praise you and encourage you.”

***

Crouch feels for fans. He can remember what it’s like to be one. He still recalls the thrill of his first childhood sighting of a footballer in the wild, a QPR player wearing jeans. It helps that he remained a normal person for longer than most of today’s players, only establishing himself in the Premier League in his early twenties, at a time when the game was somewhat less monied. Later, as a Liverpool player, he felt uneasy driving his Aston Martin through the poor areas around the club’s training ground. When he became famous (both for his goals and for his trademark “Robot” dance that followed them), he always tried to give admirers the time of day. Still, at one point in his career, when gawkers approached him in pubs he would hand them a business card listing five bullet-points:

• Yes I am tall.
• Yes I am 6ft 7in.
• No the weather isn’t different up here.
• No I don’t play basketball.
• I’m so glad we had this conversation.

 You can understand why footballers end up retreating into their own private zone. 

The height issue provides some of the rare moments when these books almost teeter into poignancy. Crouch writes: “The constant abuse from the terraces in my early days [chants of “Freak!”, and “Does the circus know you’re here?”] left me asking myself if I could really put myself through it. I remember crying in front of my dad: why do I look like this? Why can’t I be normal?” But these brief thoughts are never pursued. Two sentences later he’s silencing the mockers with a goal for QPR against Gillingham, and we move on.

There is so much else that goes unexplored in the torrent of funny or would-be funny stories, often about the “funniest” topic in English life, getting drunk. Crouch is aware of the class divide between him and many of his colleagues, but never goes there. Some of his closest companions in the game are black, but race doesn’t get a mention. And he skates over the underlying topic of his books: how to deal with footballer status while remaining sane.

He has an expert appreciation of the game’s trade-craft, but gives us too little of it: references to the Italian playmaker Gianfranco Zola, “a man with so much vision it was like he had watched an advance screening of the game the week before”, and to his hero Les Ferdinand, “the tallest 5ft 11in man of all time”, leave you wanting more. How to be a Footballer ends with a moving encomium to Steven Gerrard, Crouch’s teammate at Liverpool, a player so good that he was much better than his world-class colleagues, a fully engaged craftsman who needed only a few minutes of a piggy-in-the-middle game at training to judge each new Liverpool signing, usually negatively.

Footballers’ unearthly skills are more interesting than their lives. As Crouch says, a genius like Rooney could “launch himself into the air to make perfect contact with a ball travelling across him too fast for most people to even lay a finger on”. But these skills are hard to capture in words, and such glimpses of the game on the field are scarce.

Crouch had one book in him and it was his first, How to be a Footballer, in which he uses his best material and his cheer is usually cheering. The sequel, I, Robot, hardly even attempts to fulfil its opening promise to show “the truth behind the puff and the magic behind the curtain”.

Yet so low is the bar for interesting footballers that since retiring, Crouch has already embarked on a second English dream career: middlebrow popular entertainer. At the end of I, Robot he is “standing in front of 3,000 people at my own festival as they sang, to the tune of ‘Let It Be’, ‘Peter Crouch, Peter Crouch, Peter Crouch, Peter Crouch… There will be a podcast, Peter Crouch…’”

And possibly more than a podcast. We have learned these last three years that there are no limits to the potential of a moderately funny, apparently unthreatening Englishman of memorable physical appearance.

Simon Kuper is a columnist for the Financial Times

How to be a Footballer
Peter Crouch
Ebury Press, 304pp, £8.99

I, Robot
Peter Crouch
Ebury Press, 272pp, £20

This article appears in the 20 November 2019 issue of the New Statesman, They think it’s all over