When Rafael Benítez signed Peter Crouch three years ago it was a transfer that attracted criticism from some fans. When Crouch went on a run of nineteen games without scoring his first Reds goal the criticism was coming mainly from the press, with the fans taking him under their wing and encouraging him more and more in every game.
When he did score, his goal was officially classed as an own goal by a PA reporter who, given his decision to rule another one out in a later game (against Newcastle in December), seemed to be enjoying Crouch’s drought. But by then fans had taken Crouch to their hearts, and were disputing the PA reporter’s resentful decision. He scored a second in the same game anyway, so one way or another he’d opened his Reds account. And the official panel who sit and look at such disputed goals ruled against the reporter, and Crouch’s first goal stood. As did the other disputed goal when the panel sat in judgement of that.
He ended the season with eight league goals, plus another three in the FA Cup including the one that knocked Manchester United out on the way to Cardiff, along with two in the World Club Championship in Japan.
He increased his total to 18 in all in his second season, last season, with seven of his goals coming in Europe. This season his total, with one game left and no guarantee he’ll play in it, is just eleven goals.
But his appearances have been restricted this season. Both of his first two seasons saw him play a total of 49 games, but this season he’s been restricted to just 36. In that first season he started 42 of his 49 games, the second season 30 of the 49 games, this season 21 of the 36 games.
He’s started just nine of the 21 league appearances he’s made this season.
But despite the press linking him with a move away from Anfield even last summer, never mind over the course of a season where he’s rarely been used, he’s never been one to go around complaining: “I’ve always got on with it and tried to keep my mouth shut and just play when called upon,” he said. “I know I’m not going to play every game at Liverpool, but the year before I had a good season. I played a lot more than this year and ended up scoring 18 goals. It’s got worse this year and that can be frustrating.”
He missed out on a chance of playing in what may be his last time as a member of a Champions League squad when Rafa chose Jermaine Pennant and Ryan Babel as replacements ahead of him in the recent semi-final. He found it difficult to sit there and not be able to help his team-mates: “When you’re losing a game and you’re on the bench, I always think I’m going to get on. Not getting on against Chelsea was frustrating and disappointing. It’s something I’ve had to cope with quite a bit this season.”
Understandably, Crouch now seems to have decided the time to keep his mouth shut is over. He’s got some thinking to do, if he’s not made his mind up already: “I want to play for Liverpool in the Champions League and win things, but am I really achieving these things if I’m missing out on these big games? You are part of the squad, but there are times when you feel like you’re not achieving that. Whether you want to win things like that or play football is for me to make the decision in the summer.”
And there’s no shortage of interest. Liverpool, it would seem, could prefer him to join his former club Aston Villa, because that could help them in their attempts to sign Gareth Barry, a deal that is currently relying on using Scott Carson as part of the offer. But another former club of Crouch’s, Portsmouth, seem to be favourites to sign him.
“It’s always nice to know that if things did go completely wrong for me at Liverpool,” he says, “I’d have options to go somewhere else and it’s not the end of the world if things don’t work out for me there. I’ve not heard from Portsmouth whether they want me or not – certainly not contract talks. I’ve not spoken to them about any money.” Recent reports suggest Harry Redknapp is willing to offer Crouch £75,000 a week.
As Crouch says, it’s not the first time a club’s been linked to him: “All season there has been speculation I could be going to another club. I’ve just always got on with playing for Liverpool until told otherwise.”
Harry Redknapp helped to fuel the speculation last month when asked about his possible interest in Crouch: “There will be plenty of takers for Crouchie if he becomes available, he’s a good player. But I do like him. If Liverpool decided to sell him there would be plenty of clubs in for him.”
But Crouch’s four-year deal is about to go into its final year. Some reports have suggested that it’s been Crouch holding back from signing a new deal, but he denies this – there’s been no deal to sign: “There’s no contract on the table,” said Crouch. Maybe it’s waiting for someone to answer their phone: “I spoke to Rick Parry halfway through the season and that’s when there was all sorts going on with the owners and no-one knew who was going to own the club, let alone what my role at the club would be.”
Unfortunately that remains the same – nobody really knows who is going to own the club, or how long it’s going to take them to do so. No new money will be put into the club until the ownership situation is resolved, and that means budgets are tight. It still shouldn’t stop contract talks being held – as Sami Hyypia’s recent 12-month extension proves , but according to Crouch no talks have taken place: “They said they’d like to offer me one (new deal) and we said we’d love to talk. That was midway through the season and now we’re going to the end of the season, we will talk. It was just a five-minute chat. There was no money discussed or anything like that and everyone at Liverpool will tell you the same.”
As it was, he wouldn’t have signed a new deal even if it had been offered back then: “At the time I wasn’t playing so there was no way I could commit and no way they could ask me to.”
And according to Crouch it’s one of the few club issues not tied up with the difficulties caused by the arguments at the upper levels of the club: “It’s not really a question of who owns the club; it’s about me not having enough games this season and wanting to know what the plans are for next season.”
In the earlier part of the season Rafa seemed to prefer Torres and Kuyt as his strike options, persevering with Kuyt through a barren spell much like he’d done with Crouch in that barren spell of his own at the start of his Anfield career. By the end of the season Rafa had started to a use a new system, Torres up front alone, although not in any way isolated due to the back-up right behind him of three attacking players, usually Kuyt, Babel and Steven Gerrard. But that system really only suits Crouch in one of its positions – the one held by record-signing, new Kop hero, and most importantly 32-goal Fernando Torres. However you look at it, Crouch is going to find it hard to be a regular starter under Rafa Benitez next season and onwards.
That could impact his England career, which adds more weight to his thoughts of leaving Anfield: “I always feel when I’ve been in the squad I’ve done well for England, so hopefully that won’t change, but I do have to be playing for my club more than I have done this season. Any player with aspirations of playing for England needs to be playing regularly. The England manager wants players who are playing regular football and that’s what I want, too.”
So now it’s time for Crouch to speak to Rafa, if nothing else just for confirmation that his fears are justified: “What I must do is speak to the manager. When all is said and done, I don’t think I can have another season like this year where I’ve started nine Premier League games. Out of a 38-game league season, nine games is not the amount you want to be playing. I’ll have to speak to the manager and see what his plans are. I need to see him and sort things out.”
He missed out on a place in the 16-man squad for the Manchester City game, and chose not to even come to the game for the traditional end-of-season lap-of-honour, which usually sees all the squad take a bow, regardless of whether they played that last game.
When the Liverpool squad breaks up for the summer Crouch hopes to be involved in a couple of international friendlies, but wants to speak to the manager first: “I’ll continue to work hard and I’ve got two England games in the summer to concentrate on, but before then I do have to speak to the manager. I have to find out what he wants from me for next season and whether or not I can continue with that. In some ways I want to feel wanted. I’ve got a few questions I want to ask him, and I’m sure he has with me, too.”
It sounds like he’s still not quite made up his mind: “I’d like to speak to the manager and the club before I commit to anything and know whether or not I’ll be here next year.”
Crouch’s team-mate John Arne Riise got a clearer indication of his future when he found out Liverpool had included him as an option in their bid for Villa’s Barry. He says he’s no idea what the manager wants to do with him: “What the manager thinks, you never know” said the Norwegian international. “I feel that I could have heard something since I’ve been here for seven years, won everything we have won and played all the time.”
Riise’s frustration is understandable; he simply wants to know what’s going on.
Even more frustrated is Villa boss Martin O’Neill. His first disappointment came when Liverpool’s offer for Barry was revealed in a Liverpool Echo exclusive, making what had previously been just a rumour as far as the public were concerned into something official. Then ex-Red Patrik Berger rubbed salt into the wounds.
Berger is due to leave Villa in the summer anyway, the 34-year-old coming to the end of his contract and Villa having no intention of renewing it. He said to Barry, via the media rather than directly: “It is Liverpool, and if I was in Gareth’s position I would go there tomorrow. It is the opportunity of a lifetime. He is the heart of our team and it would be a massive challenge for him. It would be Champions League every year and he would be challenging to win trophies every year. It is some difference – and Liverpool doesn’t come after you every year.”
Villa manager O’Neill’s response to both the Liverpool bid and Berger’s advice is amusing – although perhaps not amusing to him or Villa’s fans. Berger won’t play again for Villa. O’Neill fumed: “The sad aspect of it is we’re paying Patrik’s wages for him to recommend one of our players to another football club – it’s ludicrous. I was really disappointed and surprised that Patrik, with all his experience, would make such an inappropriate comment.” O’Neill would probably also be disappointed and surprised to realise that Berger would have said much the same, in perhaps more detail, in private to Barry.
O’Neill’s reaction gives the impression of someone who might have players laughing at him behind his back if he isn’t careful: “I think Pat realises that now and he’s apologised. He said he didn’t mean a great deal of harm but the harm has been done he won’t be playing any from here on in.”
He’s probably all the more annoyed that despite his own comments last week, after admitting an offer had been made, Barry is said now to be personally set on a move to Anfield: “Gareth Barry still has two years of his contract left to run and from my two years’ experience of working with him, he’s not one who would be wanting to break contracts lightly.” O’Neill said last week.
“I don’t want to be in a position of letting really good players go. Gareth Barry is a really good player who still has two years left on his contract. I haven’t discussed these things with him yet. At some stage obviously I will do, but the day before probably our most important game of the season is not the time to be discussing it.” Villa blew that game, losing 2-0 at home to Wigan, but still have a hope of getting fifth place and a UEFA Cup spot on the last day of the season if Newcastle beat Everton and Villa beat West Ham. But even a chance of UEFA Cup football next season is unlikely to tempt Barry into signing a new deal with Villa over joining the next Liverpool quest for Champions League success.