Offside, 9 June
Peter Crouch: just because he makes us laugh doesn't make him an international footballer.
Last week he was a laughing stock; this week Peter Crouch is a national icon. And all it took was one silly dance.
There’s something quintessentially British about the celebration of Crouch’s robot dance. Quite simply we’re suckers for a man dancing like an idiot. There’s a long history of popular but crap dancing in Britain dating back to pre-industrial Morris dancing. Bez from the Happy Mondays became a superstar on the strength of his goonish dancing alone while the most iconic moment in the acclaimed sitcom The Office was the toe-curlingly embarrassing David Brent dance. But why do we love these dancefloor clowns? I reckon it’s because we recognise ourselves in them. Comedy dancing appeals to our inner David Brent. All it takes is a few beers at a wedding reception or office Christmas party and we’re up all there on the dancefloor making complete buffoons of ourselves.
Crouch’s rehabilitation is nothing short of remarkable. When the 6ft 7ins striker first pulled on an England shirt last year he was greeted with chants of ‘freak, freak, freak.’ It seemed that Sven’s Plan B amounted to sending on the big fella and lumping long balls up to him. But the robotic goal celebration during last week’s friendly against Hungary has transformed Crouch’s public standing. As one reader put it in a letter to the Guardian’s football email bulletin The Fiver, ‘History’s other great pariahs – Judas, Richard III, Nixon, Prescott, etc. – must be kicking themselves at the missed opportunity. One rubbish robot dance and all those heinous misdeeds of the past are miraculously forgotten – so simple’.
Suddenly Crouch fever has gripped the nation. The lanky striker is being immortalised by MB Games, the makers of the Subbuteo, who are releasing a special robot-dancing Crouch figure in time for the World Cup. Prince William even asked Crouch to perform the dance for him on a visit to the England training camp. When Crouch repeated the jester routine during the 6-0 win over Jamaica last Saturday he was cheered to the rafters by the same fans who had jeered him a year ago. ‘The fans have taken to Crouchy,’ said his Liverpool team mate Steven Gerrard. ‘We’re not sure that’s because of his play or the dance. At least his dancing is better than his penalty taking!’ Improbably, one silly goal celebration has fostered a new mood of optimism about England’s World Cup chances. As Patrick Barkham wrote in the Guardian, ‘Instead of anguishing over the merits of 4-1-4-1, or whether Stevie Gerrard should be stuck in the hole, England fans were suddenly thinking, hell, with moves like that we can win this thing’.
Perhaps we’ve too busy laughing at the body-popping beanpole to notice but, in the space of a few days, Crouch has been promoted from Plan B to an integral part of Plan A. ‘I think Peter Crouch will start next Saturday,’ said Sven after friendly against Jamaica. ‘I think he deserves it.’ I’ve been fairly scathing about Crouch in this column in the past and, despite his hat-trick against Jamaica, I see no reason to alter my views. Just because he makes us laugh, that doesn’t make Crouch an international footballer. Yes, he certainly looks more confident after rediscovering his scoring touch and the England players are more comfortable playing a 4-4-2 formation. But frankly my mum could have scored a hat-trick against Jamaica, so inept was their defending. Crouch has become indispensable to Sven’s plans not because he is a great footballer but because of the complete dearth of quality centre forwards in England.
It is often said that Crouch’s value is that he ‘offers something different’. For most of last season that ‘something different’ was his inability to score goals. He found the net only 8 times in 32 league appearances for Liverpool last season – a pitiful return for an international striker. So, apart from extra long trousers, what exactly does Crouch bring to the England team? My own theory is that Sven believes that the sight of a gangly circus freak striding onto the pitch might just disorient defenders.
And he might just have a point. I once witnessed this very phenomenon at a First Division play-off final at Wembley between Crystal Palace and Leicester. The game was deadlocked at 1-1 and heading for penalties when Martin O’Neill played his joker, sending on substitute goalkeeper Zeljko Kalac who was, I swear, the tallest man I have ever seen. The unnervingly surreal spectacle of a giant suddenly appearing and starting to trot across the pitch was just like a scene from a David Lynch film. The Palace fans started booing, and rightly so, for the giant would certainly have saved every penalty or at the very least freaked out opposing penalty takers. I suspect that the Palace players were similarly distracted because, with seconds to go, Steve Claridge shinned a ball that looped in slow motion over Nigel Martyn’s head and into the net. Can Crouch do the same thing in Germany? The problem now confronting Sven is this: if he starts with Crouch, the surprise element of bringing on a giant to confuse the opposition is lost. But if Crouch is on the bench it leaves a half-fit Michael Owen to hold the ball up as a lone striker. It’s no-win situation.
Peter Crouch has brought a collective smile to the face of a nation that had forgotten how to laugh ever since Wayne Rooney broke his toe. But the striker’s transformation from outsize schmuck to cult hero has obscured the fact that England’s attack is still extremely lightweight: two crocks, one child and a giant robot-dancer. Somehow I can’t see international defenders trembling at the prospect of facing that motley collection. Now, if only there was a World Cup for silly dancing, that would be a different matter.
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