Ex-Arsenal and Leeds man Jason Crowe: I become the second-most expensive player in Portsmouth history - yet the manager had never seen me play
Having initiated the Milan Mandaric revolution, perhaps it was fitting that Jason Crowe was still present at the culmination of Pompey’s Premier League dream.
Certainly his Crystal Palace cameo is regarded as the inspiration behind the wing-back system which drove the Blues to a top-flight return in 2002-03.
It was July 1999 when Crowe became Pompey’s fifth signing in eight days as new owner Mandaric demonstrated trademark impatience in pursuit of ambition.
The Arsenal right-back would also represent the first transfer fee splashed out by the charismatic Serb during his eventful seven-year Fratton Park regime.
With three appearances for Arsene Wenger’s men, the 20-year-old fetched around £600,000, although the Premier League giants stipulated the precise amount should not be revealed.
Still, at the time it established Crowe as the second-most expensive player in Pompey history, behind Gerry Creaney.
Despite the significant price tag, however, Blues boss Alan Ball had never actually seen the England under-20 international play.
‘The previous deadline day, Arsene Wenger told me Norwich wanted to sign. I went there for talks, but didn’t fancy the move as it had happened so quickly,’ Crowe told The News.
‘That summer I was put on the transfer list – which is where Pompey came in.
‘After coming down to speak to Alan Ball, though, I was also a bit sceptical about joining them.
‘He admitted that he’d never seen me play, which, to me, was crazy.
‘I really don't know how the move came about, obviously agents do their stuff and speak to certain people, chief scouts and things evolve from there.
‘But the truth is, Pompey’s manager had never ever watched me play – and I didn’t want to join because of that.
‘It would set the alarm bells ringing for anyone, certainly it did for me. However, I was pushed into signing anyway.
‘The representatives looking after me at the time didn’t give particularly good advice, not from what I now know. I would rather keep the full details to myself, to be honest.
‘Then, towards the end of pre-season, I had a disagreement with Ball at a friendly at Bournemouth – and he wouldn’t pick me for his squad in the opening five league games.
‘It was a case of “What on earth have I done by coming here?”.
‘I was aged 20 and involved in this strange situation. I thought I was coming to play, yet, come Saturday afternoon, I was sat in the stands. It was quite a frustrating time.
‘Not only had Ball never seen me play when he signed me, I don’t think he forgave me after that fall-out at Bournemouth.
‘In that match we had gone to wing-backs and there was a discussion about somebody taking the opposition winger or full-back. I thought I was in the right and he thought he was in the right.
‘I’d always stand up for myself if I thought I was right, I’d never back down, one of my downfalls to be honest.
‘Ball was a terrific player in his day – but management-wise, I’m not so sure.
‘They paid all that money and my first league appearance was against Ipswich five weeks into the season.’
Ball would be dismissed by Pompey in December 1999, by which time Crowe had finally established himself in the first-team.
Crowe would then start new boss Tony Pulis’ opening match, resulting in a 3-2 Fratton Park loss against Wolves.
Yet he swiftly fell out of favour, being transfer listed and sent out on loan to Brentford as his difficult introduction to the south coast continued.
He added: ‘Pulis replaced Ball and I don’t particularly like the man. He was a nasty piece of work, let’s just leave it at that.
‘He’s a long-ball tactician, very regimented in what he does. Admittedly, he has done very well in his managerial career at other clubs, but he’s got a certain style. Having been brought up playing football at Arsenal, it meant I wasn’t his cup of tea.
‘Pulis made up his mind about me very quickly. In training, I played the ball to my winger and he got the hump for not putting it down the channel. That was it.
‘He put me straight on the transfer list, then sent me on loan to Brentford in the division below. The thing is, I loved my football during that loan spell.
‘Then Steve Claridge became Pompey manager and immediately recalled me, making me a mainstay in the team playing at centre-back.
‘I came back to a different club to the one I had left, with a far better atmosphere.
‘That other guy (Pulis) had been treating 35-year-old experienced pros like a piece of dirt. There's a way to treat players. It doesn’t matter who you are or how old you are, you treat everyone with the same respect.
‘Just before Pulis’ arrival, I was on the verge of going into the England under-21 squad, I was pencilled in for it. Then he dropped me – and that was the closest I came to England again.
‘My third Pompey manager during the 2000-01 season was Graham Rix, a good coach and good man-manager too.
‘Not every player is a manager’s cup of tea and I went through it all at Pompey in the first couple of years. It wasn’t enjoyable for me, it really wasn’t, it was a growing up period.’
Harry Redknapp’s March 2002 appointment represented Crowe’s fifth manager in his opening three years at Fratton Park, yet it would change the course of Pompey history.
Absent through injury at the tail-end of that season, it would be August 2002 before the right-back featured competitively under his new boss.
That arrived at Palace, when his half-time entrance transformed a side losing 2-0 into 3-2 winners during a remarkable second half – with Crowe netting twice.
‘The lads loved Graham Rix and when he got the sack we all went for drinks with him to say “Thanks”,’ he said.
‘It started off as a bite to eat at TGI Fridays in Fareham, then we had a few more drinks somewhere else.
‘We were in the next day, meeting up at the Collingwood training ground and sat in a Portakabin. Some lads had been out until the early hours, so were a bit half-cut and not great.
‘Then in walks Milan and Harry. Everyone was in the corner looking at each other thinking “Oh no, here we go”. Virtually the whole squad had been out the night before.
‘Harry said: “Right lads, I’m not going to beat around the bush, this club is a joke. It has a drinking culture – and that is going to change”.
‘He was swearing a bit and added “You are either with me or you’re not. Some of you will be gone, some of you will be staying, but if you aren’t with me, clear off now”.
‘The room that day smelt of booze and we were looking at each other worried. It was only later that we discovered Harry doesn’t actually have a sense of smell! Which was fortunate.
‘Still, I don’t think anyone expected what happened the following season – but Harry’s a shrewd man.
‘We’d always been a team battling relegation. Even in my first season we stayed up on the last day by beating Barnsley. Suddenly we were winning the First Division.
‘I know Palace was only our third game, but I think it was the turning point of our season. It just gave us tremendous belief.
‘We were losing 2-0 at half-time after they had absolutely battered us. Harry brought on me and Richard Hughes and we switched to wing-backs. He told us: “Go out and change the game”. And boy didn’t it change.
‘My first goal was sliding in to finish a Matt Taylor cross from the left, while Paul Merson set me up for a second. I’d scored twice in three minutes!
‘I could have had a hat-trick too, only for a back-post header to strike the crossbar.
‘From that point, Pompey played wing-backs and were probably among only a few teams using that system.
‘We ended up promoted to the Premier League with four games to spare.’
Crowe totalled 17 appearances and four goals during that memorable season, although his campaign was to end prematurely.
With Steve Stone and Kevin Harper sidelined through injury, he lined-up at right wing-back at Wimbledon in March 2003.
After 33 minutes, Crowe was forced off with a broken toe as the table-topping Blues slipped to a 2-1 defeat – and he never played for the club again after 93 games and five goals.
‘With my contract up that summer, my representatives were talking to Harry about a new one. Then I broke a bone in my left foot against Wimbledon,’ Crowe added.
‘I tried to knock the ball down the line and Nigel Reo-Coker went through me with his studs. I didn’t play for Pompey again.
‘At the time, Harry reassured me. It was “Jason, we’ll look after you”, but nothing materialised, which was disappointing.
‘Being honest, I was never expecting to leave. The people looking after you pull the wool over your eyes. It was all “Don’t worry, the contract’s coming, I’m talking to Harry”.
‘Then, all of a sudden, there’s no contract and I was left in limbo with no club.
‘That 2003 summer, I trained on my own in a park around Whiteley, trying to get my foot better. But, of course, you cannot get that playing intensity in drills.
‘The only interest in me was Margate from the Conference. Perhaps it was down to my reputation with injuries? You just don’t know whether they look at you and think “No, he’s been injured a lot”.
‘It was a strange thing and agents are strange people. For someone to win the Championship and then not be able to get a club, even at League One or League Two level, is a bit weird in my eyes.
‘I joined Grimsby days before the start of the 2003-04 season, with no pre-season behind me. I started the opening game at Plymouth and played 36 times that season.’
Life after Fratton Park would yield a further 322 career appearances and 23 goals, before hanging up the boots at the age of 34 following a spell with non-league Corby Town.
In addition to his Pompey Championship medal, Crowe would earn promotion from League One with Leeds and League Two with Northampton.
Seeking a new career, he toyed with becoming a football scout, then a chiropractor, yet settled plastering, launching his own business three-and-a-half years ago.
Today, JC Plastering in Market Harborough continues to thrive.
He said: ‘I enrolled on a week-long plastering course and learned the fundamentals. Then I went to London and worked with my dad and brother, who are also plasters. In the first hour I learnt more than I’d ever done!
‘Plastering is hard, it’s tough on the shoulders and quite physical, but I love it.
‘My Pompey Championship medal is framed at home, it means a lot. It was just a shame I didn’t get the chance to play in the Premier League for them.’
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