Liverpool’s imperfect God should be remembered more fondly

Matt Stead

Who’s this then?

Robert Bernard Fowler is now 45 years old. A legendary 5′ 9″ striker from Toxteth, Liverpool who played for a total of nine clubs in a 19-year career which included 590 games and 254 goals.

Identified early as a hot talent, once scoring 16 goals in his school’s 26-0 win, he signed professional forms for Liverpool at just 17 and enjoyed his first season for the Reds in 1993/94. He made an immediate impression, scoring five against Fulham in a League Cup game, and netting his first league hat-trick in just his fifth match.

But it was the following campaign which really put him front and centre as one of England’s finest strikers. He scored a hat-trick against Arsenal in four minutes and 33 seconds, played every game and scored 31 goals in total. The following two seasons would see him score 67 more goals. It was an amazing three years as he racked up 98 goals in 158 games.

For a time it seemed like he simply couldn’t miss. Everything he hit went in. Alan Shearer apart, he was the most deadly striker in English football and that in itself is quite a thing because Shearer’s goal tally at this time was incredible.

His glorious goalscoring streak was halted in the 1997/98 season when he did his cruciate which sidelined him for half the season and meant he missed the World Cup. He returned to score 18 in 35 for Liverpool the next season but in retrospect, that injury effectively derailed his career. His first six years had yielded 147 goals; his next 12 would produce just 107.

Robbie himself had also been involved in two notorious incidents. The white line-sniffing (hilariously ‘explained’ by manager Gerard Houllier as a Cameroonian grass-eating celebration, learnt from teammate Rigobert Song; it wasn’t) and the pathetic, moronic, buttock-pointing homophobic taunts at Graeme Le Saux. He got a collective six-game ban and a £32,000 fine for these two incidents.

He was effectively replaced by Michael Owen at Anfield. Despite his 17 goals in the 2000/01 season, helping Liverpool to a treble, he was sold to Leeds United the following year for £12million. There had been a falling out with Houllier, to say the least.

Leeds soon began falling apart and though he scored 12 in 23 games, he was then injured again, only playing 30 games for them before a protracted £3million move to Manchester City, managed by Kevin Keegan. He was there for four long seasons and 80 games but never regained the form of his earlier years.

Then Rafa Benitez took him back to Liverpool for a couple of seasons, perhaps as PR as much as for any other reason. He played 39 games and scored 12 goals but was a shadow of the striker he had been.

There then followed a long and extended wind-down of the Fowler career at Cardiff City, Blackburn Rovers to Australia to play for North Queensland Fury, Perth Glory and finally Thailand’s Muangthong United. Retirement came in 2012.

His international career never got any momentum behind it. He was always behind Shearer in the pecking order in his peak years and a combination of injury and lack of form meant although he was often selected, he rarely played. His last game was as a sub in England’s 3-0 win over Denmark in the 2002 World Cup. He was capped 26 times and scored seven goals.

He has since dipped his toes into management, and just took over as manager of East Bengal in October. So far, although he’s won a couple of Manager of the Month awards along the way, there’s no sign that it’s going to be a calling that will be defined as in any way stellar.

Astute business decisions and amassing a huge “we all live in a Robbie Fowler house” property portfolio has meant the boy is hardly short of cash. However, he and long-time pal and business partner Steve McManaman played for an ill-advised, very distasteful Select World XI against vicious Chechen dictator Ramzan Kadyrov’s XI in a public relations fundraiser in Grozny. Ugh. What were they thinking?

However, he remains a quintessential ’90s footballer who, for half a dozen years, was one of the most lethal strikers in the business.


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Why the love?

If we put to one side the bottom pointing as part of football’s inane banter culture, which somewhat tarnishes his playing days, he was very much a classic working-class hero and that explained his ‘God’ nickname on the terraces. He was a fan on the pitch, the boy from the streets whose dreams came true. OK, he had grown up an Everton fan, but there was no doubting Robbie was a very Scouse Scouser who got to live the dream. Such a figure is always going to be held in high esteem amongst his own folk.

It was often said that he was the most natural goalscorer of his era and while I’ve no idea how anyone can be natural at doing something that is innately artificial, he was certainly someone who did not seem to have to think too much about the art of goalscoring. It all seemed to come very easily to him. Like all the elite strikers, at the peak of his form, you never felt like he would ever miss a chance. He never needed two bites at the cherry. Bam. Gola. That was how he did it.

And he could score all sorts of goals with both feet. He could do a delicate chip just as well as a piledriver and it is worth noting that he did so in a Liverpool side that finished between 3rd and 8th and were usually some way off challenging for honours. Indeed, they would’ve been a helluva lot worse if not for his form.

His honours sheet reveals just an FA Cup, two League Cups and a UEFA Cup winner’s medal. A decent haul but less than one might expect for a man who scored over 30 goals for three consecutive seasons.

There was the whole Spice Boys business and the cream suits at Wembley which all seems just very ’90s Brit Pop football. Perhaps this, along with Liverpool’s lack of title challenge, undermined his reputation as one of the country’s best strikers. With Shearer in situ, I don’t recall there being any great clamour for him to be England’s primo centre-forward. He always seemed to be on the margins of international football.

It may also be true that during his peak years, while the goals came so easily, his play outside of the box didn’t offer nearly as much. Even though he could score any type of goal from any distance and any angle, Robbie wasn’t the player you looked to drop deep into a playmaker role.

If his career had ended when he left Liverpool his reputation would’ve long burned brightly but the subsequent years of injury and under-performance somewhat diluted what he had achieved early on. As a result too many only really recall the line sniffing and such. Perhaps younger people don’t even realise how brilliant he was.

The role he played doesn’t really exist any more. It’d probably understate his talent to say he was just a goal poacher – he had so much more to his striking game than that – but poaching now seems forever out of fashion as football is turned season-by-season into science rather than sport.

This week he published a poem to Melwood on Instagram. While no-one would expect Robbie to be a second Lawrence Ferlinghetti, it was nonetheless a rather touching ode to his old training ground. In the butch world of football where, one imagines, poetry is not a primary form of entertainment, much less a tool for insight into the human condition, he should be praised for dipping his toe into it quite so publicly.


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What the people say

For those of a certain age, Robbie’s ’90s goals still shine brightly. Some still have an issue over his misdemeanours, but no-one can decry what he achieved on the pitch.

‘The player you dream to be when you’re growing up watching football.’

‘I was only 9 years old when he burst onto the scene and it was probably the age when I really started getting into football. I was too young to appreciate just how good he was. Still the most natural finisher I’ve ever seen – side netting every time. You can’t teach what he had.’

‘He is the reason I support Liverpool! I just remember watching him as a kid and his enthusiasm for scoring goals, unreal goals at that, was infectious. Had no idea who Liverpool were when I was seven but he played for them so I supported them!’

‘Forever linked with Arsenal as he was continually spotted looking at property in Hadley Wood (footballer central back then). He was actually just buying as many houses as he could for his portfolio, adding to the landlord boom that froze so many Londoners out of the housing market.’

‘Great player, loved by us Liverpool fans and a real force of nature in front of goal. But not a blemish free record by any means.’

‘Robbie F is my favourite ever Liverpool player. If injuries hadn’t scuppered him, then he could have scored more than Shearer…those first few seasons he was seriously good.’

‘He didn’t see eye to eye with Houllier who preferred starting Heskey and Owen in the FA Cup and UEFA Cup 2001 finals. Look what happened when he came on against Alaves. Or when he started the League Cup v Birmingham. 2 goals Heskey and Owen could not score.’

‘Fabulous finisher, played with a smile on his face. The kind of player you could love even though he didn’t play for your team. Sadly one of the few things he had in common with Michael Owen was he was burnt out by 25 and his career petered out.’


Three great moments

A super fast hat-trick

How many strikers could score a goal like this?

The first of many. Such an instinctive, lethal volley.


What now?

We must assume that he really likes the idea of being a manager and isn’t just doing it for another pay day, because he doesn’t need the money and presumably has plenty of other things he could be doing with his time than putting his hand up for the East Bengal job.

The gig he did at Brisbane Roar wasn’t too bad with a 45% win ratio but there’s no great sense that he’s evolving into a managerial great

Perhaps Robbie is one of those footballers who simply can’t face not being involved in the game in some way, though whether he will come back home to do this remains open to question. Prolonged success in distant lands will be a good grounding if he ever does want to work here. He has done coaching work at Liverpool and even applied for the Leeds United job in 2013 apparently.

If he can avoid the occasional gaffes such as playing in charity games for dictators, he must have much to offer football. His striking talent was as close to god-given as you’re going to see in the game. There appeared no artifice, no learned skill, no rehearsed drills to his game; it was all innate and instinctual. In the pantheon of 20th century English strikers he has earned his place in the sun, even if the light from those bright mid-90s days has been dimmed a little over the years.

John Nicholson