EXCLUSIVE: Peter Crouch has been ‘all in’ as a non-league director of football, working contacts for kit and even blagging a training pitch from a school – plus drinking the odd pint of Guinness in the stands… but don’t call him The Del Boy of Dulwich!
- Peter Crouch had a loan spell at Dulwich Hamlet from Tottenham back in 2000
- He returned to the club in the summer becoming their director of football
- The former striker arrived at the club with a fear over their immediate future
- But he is fully immersed in the running of the club, working contacts for favours
- ‘You’ve got to be all in. It’s a full-time job,’ says Sportsmail’s own Crouch
Peter Crouch stood on a terrace the other week. The first time in three decades. He even had a pint while watching his non-league team. Guinness, if you’re wondering.
As experiences go, this was novel. And he quite liked it. Crouch was behind the goal as Dulwich Hamlet won 4-3 away at St Albans in the National League South on a Tuesday night in the middle of November.
Dulwich is his club now after taking the unusual leap to become director of football over the summer. Instead of acting as a celebrity face, he lives and breathes the role; there is depth to his words and feeling towards his surroundings. What is clear while sat inside the boardroom at Champion Hill is that director of football in the sixth tier has a very different meaning than in the Premier League.
Peter Crouch returned to Dulwich Hamlet in the summer as the director of football
His decision to help an institution where he had his first ever loan spell as a gangly teenager back in 2000 was driven by an affection for the place, a fear for their immediate future but also a desire to be associated with something again after retirement. As if Sportsmail columnist, author, podcaster, pundit and television presenter was not enough.
‘I loved it that night on the terrace,’ he says. ‘Apart from the no swearing! I couldn’t understand it… why aren’t these people fighting?! It’s very pleasant.’
Crouch breaks into laughter. Crouch laughs a lot. But you knew that already. ‘Dulwich is an affluent area and the games are nothing like I’ve ever experienced in football. Not the sort of football people that I know, a totally different vibe.’
One he is fond of. The former England and Liverpool striker, who played in two World Cups and a Champions League final, always kept an eye on Dulwich. He knew of their plight, the bitter dispute between American private equity firm Meadow and Southwark Council over the stadium that walked them to the brink.
Meadow wanted to demolish Champion Hill, Dulwich’s home since 1912, and build flats. The council dug their heels in but Dulwich were still temporarily evicted, playing home games elsewhere, before a resolution was found when sports minister Tracey Crouch mediated. The property development is going ahead but with a new 4,000-capacity stadium ready for construction.
In effect, the club almost died. And with the financial impact of coronavirus, that was a very real possibility again. Yet they are still here with an army of devoted volunteers. ‘I knew how amazing the club was,’ Crouch says. ‘Ben Clasper the chairman stepping in to try and save them, the fan marches. They were doing fine without me.
‘When I came back, so did the memories. I was 17 and was here for about a month. Nothing has changed since! Like, nothing — apart from the crowd. We get 3,500 now. It’s incredible.
‘I’ll be honest with you, I didn’t want to come at the time. I was at Tottenham and David Pleat sent me here. Spurs had signed Dave McEwen from Dulwich and I was part of the deal. I didn’t know what was going on. Why would I want to go to the Isthmian Premier?
‘I was getting kicked up in the air by big lumps. I found it really tough. I thought, “Maybe this is my level”. I was probably as tall as I am now and two stone lighter. Skinny. So skinny, a kid getting pushed about by men.
‘I’m not sure where Dave is now. If you could’ve predicted who would play for England at that moment, you’d choose him. There were points in my early career where I would’ve been happy to just make a living out of the game, so to go on and achieve… you don’t know as a kid, do you?’
Crouch had previously played for Dulwich Hamlet on loan from Tottenham back in 2000
DULWICH HAMLET FACT-FILE
Ground: Champion Hill
Division: National League South (highest division ever)
Last trophy: Isthmian League Division 1 South: 2012-13
Biggest league win: 10-1 v West Norwood in 1920 – 2
The Dulwich board of directors wanted to hear Crouch’s plans for improvement before his arrival. To deliver this, he required visual aids. Only Crouch is a technophobe. He enlisted the expertise of his 10-year-old, Sophia. The clip of father and daughter working through a computer presentation on a laptop at home forms a heartening scene in a documentary series following Crouch’s journey with Dulwich.
‘Oh God, PowerPoint presentations aren’t my forte, would you believe. I played football for 22 years! I had to download it, I didn’t even know what it was. She basically had to do it for me. I had to tell her what to put on it.’
Crouch points to the television above his head, where the presentation — without flashy gizmos, Sophia kept things strictly professional — was beamed to the board. ‘It went really well but unbeknown to them, my little girl did it for me. Obviously they were all my points, I didn’t copy her!’
We will have to take Crouch’s word for that. He is laughing again, an artist of self-deprecation, but is keen to impress how serious this job is for him. His eyes widen in anticipation of progress, detailing the 500 supporters who had to be turned away recently with Champion Hill bursting at the seams, queues a mile down the road.
Crouch took over the role after having fears over the immediate future of the club financially
American private equity firm Meadow wanted to demolish Dulwich home Champion Hill
He is working contacts to source equipment to benefit manager Gavin Rose’s promotion bid. Training vests, heart monitors, an app that tracks each player’s performance. ‘I want it a little bit more professional, similar to what I had,’ he says.
‘The players are so into all that, they’re desperate for it. They’d love something that league players have. We only had one player at the start of the season. Gav and I went round trying to entice players to sign on less money. We’ve only got 14 really, plus some kids. The standard is good, it really is. To see them all signed up and happy, winning games, is special.’
In a congested division, Dulwich are around the play-offs approaching Christmas. Some fans would rather they stay exactly where they are, and there was criticism when Crouch’s appointment was announced in conjunction with the upcoming series, which will be streamed on discovery+.
‘I never want it to be seen as me coming here with the cameras as a circus. I completely understand all of those fears and the only way I can alleviate them is by getting stuff done, improvements that everyone can see.
‘You don’t want someone strolling in and out again, leaving the club in a worse place. That is the last thing I want to do.
‘Some people don’t want it to be too glamorous. Or don’t want to go up too high. There are some people who like being non-league, which of course is nice but you have to aspire to something.
‘The experience on a Saturday will never change. The changes will be gradual because, listen, I’m not coming here so we start spending a few hundred thousand pounds on someone. We haven’t even got a training ground!’
Peter Crouch on a visit to the club with the Duke of Cambridge, Prince William, in September
The training ground — or lack of one — is the bane of Crouch’s existence right now. Sessions are on the first-team pitch, which the women’s side also use, and there are fears for its state over winter.
Crouch is learning all about local politics, on and off the phone with the council. This is a constant struggle, begging Crystal Palace and Millwall to borrow the odd academy pitch for an evening while also attempting to secure a permanent home. Crouch thought he had sorted a spot at a local school, only for logistics to kibosh that. He is on to another, pointing in the direction of his next target. That belongs to a school in Elephant & Castle, whose sports grounds are three miles from their classrooms.
‘If you come here from Elephant & Castle at any time of day, particularly rush hour, you just can’t do it — takes too long — so that place just doesn’t get used. The grass is so long, they don’t go there. But it’s perfect for us. Pavilion, clubhouse, three pitches. Right there. Can we do it? I rang up the council to try and speak to the school to try and get hold of it or rent it.
‘This is mainly me at the moment, this place. It’s been fun being a part of it. You have to set aside time for this. You’ve got to be all in. It’s a full-time job.’
The lack of a training ground is the bane of Crouch’s (right) existence right now
Crouch is thinking like a money man, with a sense of responsibility. He wanders through the stadium’s nooks and crannies, from the church to a disused indoor squash court in the main stand. He pops into see boxing trainer Clinton McKenzie, who counts broadcaster Huw Edwards and First Dates maître d’ Fred Sirieix as clients. He sees revenue potential in some areas, wants more done with the upstairs function room.
‘You know what is so difficult?’ he asks. ‘I always come in with the intention to do this or that and then the moment I walk in there is always a problem! Something has happened. We can’t train. Or the floodlights have failed. Everyone was holding floodlights on the pitch to see if they were bright enough at one point.
‘I had to sort of blag our way into a school to train really, I’ve agreed to give a talk to some of the kids!’
It sounds like he is dishing out plenty of favours. ‘I know, I know! Oh, all over the place.’
The Del Boy of Dulwich? ‘No, come on. Do I look like Del Boy? Definitely Rodney. Rodders, 100 per cent. They used to call me that at QPR — Rodney Trotter. It went with me to Portsmouth, they called me Pompey Rodney. Then it just disintegrated, vanished as I started getting… good!’
Now it is back. Peter Crouch has come full circle: Dulwich Hamlet’s Independent Trader.
Crouch admits he was once nicknamed ‘Rodders’ after the character (right) in beloved TV sitcom Only Fools and Horses – but he doesn’t want to be known as a Del Boy (centre), despite his wheelings and dealings at Dulwich that are helping the club become more professional
Peter Crouch: Save Our Beautiful Game, available to stream on discovery+ from December 28.
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