One of the relatively unknown stories of Englishmen abroad involves one of the most recognisable England internationals of the present day. Cast your minds back to 2000: England bombed in the Euros under Kevin Keegan and Peter Crouch played in the Swedish third tier…
A future England international and UEFA Champions League finalist playing in the third tier of the Swedish League sounds rather far-fetched. Yet for a short spell in 2000, this is exactly what Peter Crouch was doing.
At that time, the 19 year old beanpole striker resembled Bambi more than he did an expensive striker with a good scoring rate at international level. Tottenham had signed him on as a profession in 1998, but his career was going nowhere. A spell with Dulwich Hamlet on loan gave indication of what Spurs thought of him and when a loan move to IFK Hässleholm was arranged in the summer of 2000, it looked as though his time as a professional footballer was in freefall.
Playing in the Södra Götaland section of the Swedish 2nd Division, Hässleholm did not expect much from the season. They had a young, disparate squad, with 18 players from six different countries. There was not a great deal of hope. The opportunity arose, however, to sell one of their more promising players to Tottenham Hotspur. Jon Jönsson had made his IFK debut in 1999, at the age of 15 and when George Graham came knocking, a £70,000 and two loanee deal was arranged. Those two loanees were Crouch and Alton Thelwell.
The two youngsters went to Sweden during the Spring, just as the Swedish season was kicking off. Thelwell had already made his first team debut and great things were expected of the defender, whereas Crouch was not expected to be re-sign for Spurs once the loan period was over. The striker put on a poor show on his debut against Landskrona; so much so that manager Conny Olsen dropped to the bench for the second game. A run in the reserves ensured the 19 year old Crouch found his touch though, with a five-goal performance against Hacken (and a young Tobias Hysen) seeing him recalled to the first team.
Olsen went on record as saying that Thelwell was the best of the two players, but the height and unwieldy nature of Crouch was something he felt would be effective in their league. And so it proved as the Englishmen continued their stint into the summer months. Olsen, however, felt that Crouch was a poor player technically, in particular in the air and this is what he worked on the most. The story at the time is that when Crouch jumped up for corners, he would be lower than he would be if he was standing.
Rumours abound that Crouch spent a lot of his non-football time drinking and enjoying what little nightlife the quiet town of Hässleholm offered. According to some reports, Crouch drank more beer than water during his time at the club. Yet coach Olsen was happy if that was the case, as he saw the amibition and willingness of the two men as their greater strengths.
In the end, IFK were relegated. Crouch finished with three goals in his eight first team appearances and displaced Zambian striker Bernard Makufi in the starting team, before returning to White Hart Lane. Thelwell played less due the plague of his early career: injuries. He did get a run in the Spurs first team on his return (18 appearances in all), as well as earning an England Under 21 cap. Hoddle though released him in 2003 as injuries took their toll. He went on to play for Hull City and Leyton Orient, before ending up on the London non-league scene. Crouch moved on to bigger and better things.
On his return to the UK that summer, Spurs cashed in on him, with Crouch moving to Queens Park Rangers for £60,000. Steady scoring and growing confidence saw the striker eventually secure a move to Liverpool and then back to Tottenham (via Portsmouth and Aston Villa amongst others), as well as over 42 caps and 22 goals for England. It is a remarkable story, and perhaps one that should resonate with all young English footballers struggling for playing time at their club.
As Crouch said in a recent interview, he would recommend a stint overseas to any player, as it helped make him realise that what he could achieve in the game. Perhaps more telling is how a change in coaching and surroundings allowed him to develop the part of his game that was lacking, and which is so effective now.