It’s never been difficult warming to Peter Crouch. The veteran striker, who will turn 37 in January, has always been the most endearing of footballers, a totemic, endearingly self-deprecating being who has always exuded an air of contentment throughout his career.
And it’s worked for him. Although an FA Cup with Liverpool is his only major honour, ‘Crouchy’ has played and scored regularly wherever he’s been, including for England, with an impressive return of 22 goals in 42 caps.
Of course, while a return to action under Gareth Southgate is most unlikely (although he has confirmed his availability should the England manager find himself short of options up front), Crouch has surely done enough to earn a starting berth at Stoke City.
The first thing that comes to mind for most people when Crouch is mentioned these days is Twitter. Instead of the usual ‘delighted with the three points’ updates, Crouch suffuses his Twitter feed with his genial sense of humour and wit.
Still Life in the Old Giraffe Yet
However, he’s far more than just a social media savant. The Potters striker – who hilariously likened himself to a giraffe in the summer – has scored three goals in seven substitute appearances this season (two in the league, one in the Carabao Cup), but they’ve been important contributions.
After replacing Jesé Rodriguez in the second-half against West Bromwich Albion, Crouch capitalised on a comical defensive error by Ahmed Hegazy to equalise. Then, being granted a 20-minute cameo against his former side Southampton, Crouch bundled home a late winner to give Stoke just their second win of the season.
Crouch doesn’t seem like the type who will darken Hughes’s doorway demanding a place in the starting line-up, but he does have a reasonable claim to be given another chance. After his winner against the Saints, his manager explained why he prefers to use the forward as an impact sub.
“Crouch wants to play more games and wants more starts but, as a sub, he gives the opposition something more to deal with,” Hughes said.
“He has a huge role here and has come up trumps for us late in the day. We got over the line in the end.”
But when Gary Lineker interviewed Crouch on Match of the Day that evening, the striker insisted that he was not resigned to a role consisting purely of 20-30 minute appearances from the bench.
“No, I’m still knocking on the door and I still want to be playing. I still feel fit so I still want to be starting games,” he said.
Struggling Saido Has Had His Chance
So, with Crouch’s intentions crystal clear, does he deserve a starting place?
Well, Saido Berahino is one of the men currently keeping him out of the team, but the former Baggies striker hasn’t scored in 591 days.
In that time, he has encountered discipline problems, faced accusations of poor fitness and received an eight-week ban for recreational drug use, so there is a valid argument that Crouch, who has kept himself in a good physical condition despite his advancing years, deserves to start ahead of Berahino.
Hughes has always publicly backed Berahino, but perhaps he is trying to avoid conceding that spending close to £15million on a wayward striker who, according to Tony Pulis, ‘needed to get his act together’ was a bad piece of business.
But there can be no hiding from the prevailing argument that Berahino, once touted to be a regular England starter (he’s yet to make his senior debut), has had ample chances and fluffed them.
Since joining from the Baggies in January, he has had 16 shots and failed to score, while his recent penalty miss – the fourth in as many attempts – against Southampton smacked of a striker tragically short of confidence.
Crouch, meanwhile, has scored eight goals in the same period. He continues to exemplify that old adage that age is just a number. Scoring goals is a business, and Crouch is a far more profitable asset than Berahino.
It comes with experience. When Crouch made his Premier League debut with Aston Villa in 2002, Berahino had just turned nine. Over the years, Crouch has mastered that ability to anticipate crosses, time runs, and find tiny pockets of space.
They’re all attributes that are acquired over time and, with almost 700 games under his belt at club level, he’s simply more adept than Berahino at creating the chances for himself. He’s also spent time in the doldrums (after he signed for Liverpool he went 24 hours without a goal for club and country), so adversity up front doesn’t faze him quite as much anymore.
Finally, Crouch offers that unique dimension up front that a 6ft 7in frame gives you. He officially holds the Guinness World Record for most Premier League headed goals with 51 and, with players like Joe Allen and Xherdan Shaqiri there to deliver crosses, it makes more sense to have Crouch as a target in the middle, who has won 19 aerial duels to Berahino’s three this season.
It’s almost definitely something Hughes has thought about during the international break. If Crouch fails to make the starting line-up for this week’s game against Manchester City, it’s doubtful he’ll kick up much of a fuss. If he comes on and scores again, though, then surely it will make his manager’s mind up for him.