NINETEEN games. Seven months. Twenty-four hours. Eight minutes.
Ten years ago today, a long ball is pumped toward the halfway line with the Wigan Athletic midfield caught ball watching. Peter Crouch chests it down and within a single, fluid motion, he’s bearing down on the opposition penalty area. Anfield roars him on as he surges up field.
Three touches later, he strides through a gaping hole in Wigan’s defence. They back off and back off, and back off some more, and he shapes to shoot. The roar becomes a cacophony.
Fernando Morientes is to his right, Steven Gerrard is bursting through the middle and Harry Kewell to the left of the captain. Crouch has so much time, so many options, the weight of his 1,299-minute drought on his sizeable yet flimsy frame causes self-doubt. He makes two wrong decisions in quick succession.
First, he takes an extra unnecessary touch, allowing Leighton Baines to close him down. This touch forces him into a shot he hadn’t shaped for. On another day he slips in Morientes, who’s lost the attention of Baines, who can fire a low cross into the penalty area for one of Gerrard or Kewell to run on to.
But Crouch is desperate. So desperate for that goal, to end the run that had dogged his big move, that has sharpened the knives and emboldened the critics.
He shouldn’t shoot, the opportunity had gone. It defies belief how it loops into the net after it smashes into the back of Baines’ legs. The ball loops in the air for a full two seconds, seemingly eternity. It feels longer every time you watch it back.
Mike Pollitt, the Wigan goalkeeper, is dreadful for it, and quite literally palms it into the back of the net as he tracks back to his line.
“It’s not a question, the goal’s got to be mine. Course I’m claiming it, I was aiming for the top corner.”
Crouch couldn’t care less, and was near enough incredulous at suggestions it was an own goal. The camera bounces as it follows his celebration, his arms outstretched, jubilation everywhere. He’d promised to jump into the Kop when he broke his duck, and he looked like he was going to before Jamie Carragher grabbed hold of him near the halfway line.
His second, a gorgeous dink over Pollitt after Steve Finnan’s caressed ball over the top, showed the composure and quality in front of goal that became a trademark of his over the next three seasons.
Crouch almost redefined goal drought as he searched, in vain, for his first Liverpool goal for almost half of the 2005-6 season. The cliche goes that you take any goal as it comes in that situation, a five-yard tap in, one off the backside… you get the gist. Frankly, no one saw the comical way in which he finally found the back of the net coming.
A 6ft 7in sideshow to Rafa Benitez’s second season in charge, the England striker had become a figure of fun. His signing, on the back of scoring 13 goals in the second-half of Southampton’s relegation from the Premier League in 2004-5, felt more than merely an unwise gamble.
Just look at him! He’s literally the biggest man you’ve ever seen. And he’s all bone! Where’s the muscle?
Gangly, lanky, flailing limbs. Decent at lower league level with Portsmouth and QPR, out of his depth at Aston Villa and effective for half-a-season for a relegated side.
He looked to have an obvious ceiling; one who would bring the Reds down to his level, rather than rising to their level.
It’s the summer of 2005, Liverpool are European champions. They have the field of European football and, with Milan Baros out of favour, a striker is a priority. Rafa Benitez picks Peter Crouch. Who knows what the Twitter age would have made of that?
It felt ludicrous. The first five months, with the season starting in July that year, appeared to prove Liverpool was too big a club for him. He looked to lack the conviction, mentality, and, ultimately, ability required to cut it.
His middle-third work was always promising, tidy on the ball — the birth of “good touch for a big man” — but he would freeze in the opposition penalty area. His missed penalty against Portsmouth in November 2005, which took the goal drought past the 16-hour mark, was obvious before he even stepped up.
And yet Benitez’s trust never wavered in the £7million man. The start against Wigan was his 16th of the season, not a bad show of faith from a manager who rotated for 99 games in a row during this period. Crouch thoroughly vindicated Benitez’s faith during that testing time. Lesser managers would lose faith, lesser players would lose hope.
Crouch went on to find the back of the net 13 times that season. The early-era Benitez Liverpool was always more functional than spectacular, lacking the final-third quality to cut through sides like a latter-day one could. Steven Gerrard won Footballer of the Year and scored 23 goals, something Crouch’s presence played no small part in.
When he left for Portsmouth in 2008 it felt too soon. His game time suffered because Fernando Torres was the best striker in Europe, and the Torres-Gerrard axis one of the most effective duos around. He was a brutally effective Plan B, but he felt he merited more. With Torres making only 24 Premier League appearances the following season, you wonder what could have been achieved with Crouch in reserve.
He flourished again at Tottenham, reaching a Champions League quarter-final, and has been steady at Stoke, but his peak years came in red.
It’s not simply the goals you remember with Crouch — 42 of them, including the memorable FA Cup fifth-round winner against Manchester United, the bicycle kick against Galatasaray that defied belief and the perfect hat-trick against Arsenal.
He played with an infectious attitude, a sense that he always enjoyed the simplicity of playing football. No one seemed to enjoy scoring goals as much as Crouch — only Luis Suarez really ran him close — and for that he’ll always be fondly remembered.
In a perverse sense that 24-hour goal drought made him, and relaxed him later in his career. Living and breathing that early struggle with him made the good times that much better. For a striker to stand on a football pitch for 24 hours, waiting to find the back of the net, to miss chance after chance, to have all the nonsense around it build up, is the stuff of nightmares.
Many would crumble.
To come out the other side fighting — and always smiling — is a credit to him. He should be remembered fondly by Reds. And not just for a great song.
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Pics: David Rawcliffe-Propaganda Photo