Huckerby on horses in cars, setting fire to trainers... and catching Crofty
Darren Huckerby forged some strong bonds with a number of his Norwich City team-mates, but in terms of traditional football banter it is perhaps Lee Croft who was a central figure.
The pair knew each other from their time at Manchester City, but it was at Carrow Road that Croft’s true personality began to emerge.
“Without a shadow of a doubt, he’s one of the funniest people I’ve ever encountered in football,” says Huckerby. “You laugh with him, and you laugh at him – although the emphasis is on the latter. Not only is he not the most natural-looking footballer, he’s not the most natural looking anything – he’s got a big arse and an enormous head. On top of that, he talks absolute drivel all the time.”
Croft, says Huckerby, bought a house “miles away” from, the city, and obtained a dog which proceeded to “rip it up” – “and he had to pay someone to take it off his hands”.
“That was Crofty all over – he was completely impractical.”
Croft became a “victim” – Huckerby frequently cut his laces or set fire to his trainers – while Croft stands accused of regularly raiding the Huckerby locker.
“I’d warn him, but he’d never listen. In the end, I made a little funeral pyre for his trainers, got some lighter fluid, and set a little trail ablaze so when he came out of the showers he could see flames heading towards all his stuff.”
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Then there was the time Croft asked to borrow Huckerby’s car, which led to action movie-style shenanigans, which also involved Craig Fleming.
“He pestered me for weeks to borrow my car, saying he wanted to take a girl out in it. Eventually, I told him that he could, but he had to let me know where he was planning to go. Daftly, he told me the name of the restaurant he was going to, and I kindly booked a table for him. Flem and I had conjured up a plan – I was going to ‘nick’ the car as soon as they sat down to have their meal, and I was going to film his reaction when he came out and realised it was gone.
“Of course, the resulting footage would then be made available to the rest of the lads.
“The table was booked for half seven. Flem had got hold of a little Corsa so Crofty wouldn’t know that we were following him; however, as we arrived in the car park, Crofty was driving out. What had he treated her to, a packet of Monster Munch?
“It was annoying – we’d been super-prepared, and even brought some broken glass to make it look as if one of the windows had been smashed. Undeterred, we decided to follow him and pull off the fake theft wherever he chose to stop for meal. But he kept driving and driving, heading for Great Yarmouth, of all places. He got to the Acle straight, which is a long road that leads towards Yarmouth and put his foot down, hard. Crofty was in my car, weaving in and out of oncoming traffic like an absolute idiot. We tried to catch him, but the little Corsa just couldn’t compete. He must have been doing 120 mph.
“We lost him; the next day, Flem and I pulled him over in the canteen. ‘So, how did the date go?’
‘Good,’ he said. ‘We just went for a quiet meal in Norwich.’
‘You’re a lying git – you were in Yarmouth! And how fast were you going in my car?’
‘I never went over 75, 80. Honest, Hucks,’ he said, and told us that he’d seen a car behind him overtaking people.
“He was like that all the time, and he was absolutely great to have around the place even if, for the first three months, he used my stuff all the time. He brought nothing with him. No wash bag, no spare kit, nothing.
“In the end, Lyndsey and I took him shopping like he was a little kid and dragged him round John Lewis to get a wash-bag, deodorant, aftershave, and hair-gel. It seemed right to take him under our wing; as I was No. 6 and he was No.7, we sat next to each other in the changing room.
“Oh, the stories that I would have to listen to there.
“Lee, of course, has now shared most of these with the world thanks to his slot on Soccer AM, but I got a sneak preview.
“Amongst the highlights was a tale he told about seeing a horse crammed into the back of a Range Rover, something he absolutely insisted was true no matter how much you questioned him.
“Then there were the monkeys. Apparently, there’s a thriving population of them in Wigan, where he comes from. They live in the trees.
“If that wasn’t weird enough, he also claimed to have seen a wasp that was as big as his fist.
“Lee was a breath of fresh air that summer, and he was a good player when he was on his game. He needed to work on his crossing, but he was really good at getting at players and putting them on the back foot, skills which really worked in the new formation. However, his game relied heavily on work-rate, so I would have liked to have seen him fitter.”
• HUCKERBY ON SHEARER
“Shearer was a goal machine and, for my money, the best English centre-forward that there’s ever been.
“I would often watch him in training and, even years down the line, I still go on and on about it to people. He didn’t mess about at all. You see some players trying to chip the keeper, do silly things, and generally mess around. Not Shearer. Even though he liked a laugh and a joke, when he was doing shooting, he just smashed everything. And nine times out of 10 it would hit the target.
“I used to tell Dean Ashton about him – how serious he was about scoring goals. His goal-ratio was ridiculously good, but he also survived some horrendous injuries. On top of that, he was one of those who managed to change his game as he got older. When he was younger he was quick and could get into the channels; later on, he adapted so he was holding the ball up more and bringing other players in.”
• HUCKERBY ON KEEGAN
“Looking back now, it’s clear to me that Kevin Keegan has been one of the major influences on my career – even though he sold me on to other clubs both times I played for him. I’ve got nothing but good things to say about him. He builds exciting teams and signs players that the fans love to watch, and I’ve enjoyed his training immensely whenever I’ve worked with him.
“That’s not to say that we grew close personally as I did with Gordon Strachan, Nigel Worthington, or a couple of the other managers that I’ve come across. What makes Kevin stand out in my mind is that he’s such a big name: it’s hard not to be impressed by someone who’s achieved what he has as a player and manager. Wherever he goes, he makes things happen – especially, as we shall see, at Manchester City. His first real success as a manager, though, was taking over at Newcastle when they were down near the bottom of the old Division Two and turning them from a complete mess into a real powerhouse.”