'I've always been in and out of fashion - mainly out, actually'
Peter Crouch may be self-deprecating but he remains as serious about football as ever
Peter Crouch has no doubt about his favourite footballer of all time. "Ronaldo, the Brazilian one," he says. "Incredible player. I met him once. I was in Ibiza on holiday and quite by chance ran into him in a club. He's the only man I'd go up to and ask for a picture. And I did. As we were taking the picture, I remember thinking, 'I wonder if he knows who I am.' And you know what? He didn't have a clue."
For some time now it has been the self-effacing Crouch who is the one being asked for pictures. Everywhere the 6ft 7in striker goes he is stopped for a selfie, usually followed by an inquiry about what the weather is like up there. A fixture in English football, a man who was playing in the World Cup a decade ago, he seems to have been smilingly acquiescing to such requests for ever. Indeed, he recently received a letter which reinforced his longevity.
"It was the football equivalent of a telegram from the Queen on your 100th birthday," he says. "Except this one was from Richard Scudamore to mark my 400th Premier League appearance.
"I knew it was a bit of a milestone and it was a nice gesture. Especially as it came with a cheque for £5,000 to give to a charity of your choice."
He gave his to the children's charity Best Together. "My wife's very close to it," he says. "It's about giving kids who don't have a great chance a start in life. Every kid should have a chance, in my opinion." It was all the more pleasant a task since it was one he never expected.
When he played his first Premier League game for Aston Villa back in 2002, the last thing he imagined was that he would go on to play a further 399. "I was a million miles from being a Premier League player," he admits of his early days. "You see some people, at 18 they are ready. At 21, I wasn't.
"Physically nowhere near. I had done well in the Championship. But then I came up against Tony Adams, Sol Campbell. After my first game, if you'd have said to me you'll play 400 in the Premier League I'd have said you were a liar."
His physique has always been the thing that makes Crouch stand out. And almost from the moment he first started to bang in the goals for the QPR youth team, he was told he was too tall, too thin, not the right shape to make it.
"Right from school I got mockery for the way I look," he says. "I took it to heart early on. I admit there were times when I doubted myself. And once you've played for England, it goes off the scale, everything's highlighted.
"I got booed by my own fans when I came on in my first game for England. You go through things that are ridiculous. But you get to the stage you realise everyone's got an opinion."
He admits, though, he has long used the derision as fuel to drive his determination. Throughout his career, he has looked to prove people wrong. "I had strong characters around me like my dad and that helped," he says of his father, Bruce, a leading advertising executive. "There were times when I couldn't see a way through. But they believed in me, I was lucky. And I had to develop a thick skin. I learned how to laugh at myself. And give a bit back."
Looking back, Crouch is now able to put a humorous spin on his development. As he is about most things. Ask him about anything and he'll come up with a wry observation, from Donald Trump and Brexit ("I know a lot of people are s**t scared about Trump but everyone deserves a chance, so give him time. Europe's the same - let's wait and see.") to Michael Gove's insistence that we have all had enough of experts ("what I will say is there's a hell of a lot of them out there. There's a place for the real thing - it's just finding one that's the problem.")
Humorous exuberance is never far from Crouch. This, after all, is the man who was recently spotted crowd surfing at a Kasabian gig. "Love Kasabian," he says. "You've got to love them, haven't you?"
He may not take himself too seriously, but throughout his years at the top, Crouch has taken his profession very seriously.
Even at 35 he charges out on to the Stoke training fields every morning with the same Bambi-like enthusiasm he exhibited as a 12-year-old.
"When I started, people were looking to finishing at 31, 32. I'm nowhere near it," he says. "I train every single day, still absolutely love it. I've just been out there this morning, there's no better feeling than putting the ball in the back of the net."
That remains the thing he most enjoys about the game. He reckons he can remember every single goal he has ever scored. Particularly one at the Britannia (now the Bet365 Stadium) for Stoke against Manchester City in 2012, when he demonstrated the full range of his technique with a stunning, long-range, goal-of-the-season volley.
"I remember trying the exact same thing week before at Blackburn and the keeper saved it," he recalls. "It was a great moment. My mum's side of the family are City fans, and they were all up in the stands. Yeah, I enjoyed that."
And while he admits to being frustrated that his role these days is restricted to the Stoke bench, he still has his eye on career landmarks.
He is four away from 100 Premier League goals, and has no plans to retire for some time yet. "I've never relied on pace, so don't have to worry about losing it," he smiles. "I was speaking to the manager [Mark Hughes] the other day. He played till he was 40 and he thinks I can, too."
It is now, indeed, that his idiosyncratic body shape is paying dividends. "I love my food, like a nice Italian. I'm lucky, I never had to watch my weight. In the summer I go off, don't do much in the way of exercise, eat what I like, come back exactly the same weight.
Which p****s off a few I can tell you. The way Charlie Adam looks at me..."
While he reckons he can carry on much as he always has, he recognises that he is involved in a profession that is constantly evolving.
"Headphone culture," he says of one of the biggest changes he has noted in his time. "Players used to talk to each other a lot more. I remember it began to change when the portable DVD player came in. Everyone sitting there in their headphones, you could see the camaraderie being taken away. That said, we've still got a card school at Stoke. Though I'm probably the one keeping that alive."
On the pitch, too, he has noticed in his 14 years at the top, how things have developed. "It's all fashion," he says. "The goalkeeper playing out from the back, centre-halves splitting, that's trendy now. Three at the back with wing-backs is coming back in this season. But I reckon there'll always be a place for someone like me.
"Obviously I'm frustrated I'm not starting, but the manager has reiterated whenever I've gone in to see him that there is a place for me. He says there'll always be a place for a target man." He then pauses for a moment and smiles.
"The thing about me I've always been in and out of fashion," he says.
"Mainly out, actually." And he roars with laughter, before bouncing off to enjoy himself somewhere. (© Daily Telegraph, London)