The Return of God

NINE years after Gérard Houllier had forced him out of the Anfield door, Robbie Fowler, or God as he is better known to many, returned home. When looking back at his career, Fowler was asked at which point he was happiest, his reply speaks volumes of the emotions of the time – ‘That would probably be 2006, when I returned. You think you’ll never get a chance again; I was looking to get that chance’. A born and bread Scouser, delivered a second opportunity to play for the team he had already represented over two hundred times.

Steve McManaman departed Liverpool for Madrid on a Bosman in 1999; many fans believed they had been robbed of a big fee that they deserved. When Fowler extended his contract, also in 1999, it assured Liverpool would not again be left red faced. However, Fowler was frustrated with a lack of game time, unfavoured by Houllier who preferred the Owen and Heskey partnership. They had let one local talent leave through the back door on a free; now Fowler was feeling pushed out. Fowler frankly stated about Houllier, ‘He lied to me’. From dressing room dressing downs to a lack of game time, many reasons surrounded his departure. Perhaps the most alerting is the accusation that Houllier pressured a young Chris Bascombe, who worked as a reporter for the Liverpool Echo, to slate Fowler’s performances. This all combined to mean that the treble winning season of 2001 was described by Fowler as his best and worst. In November 2001 Fowler left his hometown for Leeds, in return for £11 million.

Fowler no doubt left with a point to prove, however his journey from Liverpool to Leeds to Manchester was blighted by injury. He spent six years at Leeds United and Manchester City scoring 34 in 90 games away from Anfield, averaging just 15 games a season. Injuries hugely hampered his promising Leeds career; a combination of this and Leeds’ famous financial issues resulted in a move to Man City. Fitness again caused Fowler to sit on the side-lines and hampered his form. Even the signing of former teammate and fellow Spice Boy, McManaman did little to restore his form. Fowler’s missed penalty in the final game of the season cost City UEFA Cup qualification for the following season. However, he came third in the City Player of the Year vote and Fowler ranked this as one of the proudest achievements of his career. The January of the following season saw Fowler’s return home.

Following a battle with his fitness and some underwhelming performances, it could be easy to assume that the arriving 30-year-old would disenchant Liverpool fans. However, this was not any player – this was their ‘God’. The Toxteth Terror had made a name for himself on Merseyside by being coined the most natural goalscorer in a red shirt. From his very first season, which delivered 18 goals making him Liverpool’s top scorer, Fowler was a hero at Anfield. 1994-95 brought with it his first 30-goal season, the fastest hat-trick in Premiership history, the Coca-Cola Cup and the PFA Young Player of the Year. A feat made even more impressive by the fact he scored 30 and was Young Player of the Year again the following season. His recalcitrant Spice Boy image did little to halt his progress as he reached 100 goals in 165 games, one game faster than Ian Rush. It was not just his goal-scoring prowess that connected him with Liverpool fans, he created a rapport with them that had not been seen since King Kenny Dalglish. A UEFA Fair Play Award following a wrongly given penalty aided his image. However, Fowler’s affinity with the fans perhaps best depicted with his public support of Merseyside dockers in 1997. Much like the rest of his career, injuries halted his progress, partnered with the arrival of Michael Owen. Despite all of this, Fowler was God and Owen was not, his relationship with Liverpool fans stood the test of time, the fans were living their dreams through their fellow Scouser, which explains why the Liverpool fans were so happy to welcome him home.

Now to return to an image of Fowler in May 2005, sitting at home watching the drama of Istanbul. He had not done what Owen had, to leave in search of more trophies, Fowler wanted to stay at Liverpool. He was yearning for a chance he thought would never come, to return to his city, his people, his worshipers. When he received a phone call from Liverpool an easy decision was made:

“Going back to Liverpool, I always think to myself, when you’re a young lad and you have a girlfriend and then all of a sudden you haven’t got her, you always want to go back to her if you see someone else with her. That’s what I was like with Liverpool. I got a phone call asking: would I be interested, I nearly dropped the phone! Of course, straight away I went up to Anfield and had a little chat with Rick Parry (Liverpool’s CEO) and Rafa Benítez and I more or less signed straight away. I was lucky enough to play games for Liverpool, score lots of goals for Liverpool and win trophies, but re-signing was by far the best thing that I ever done.”

Imagining Fowler in his car, receiving that phone call and celebrating it as if he’d won the Champions League himself can only endear him further to any Kopite. This proved to be a master stroke by Benítez, he understood the importance of Fowler to the fans and it did Rafa no harm to get the fans even more on his side. His second debut came against Birmingham City in February 2006 and Fowler received a reception befitting of his relationship with the supporters, banners at the game read ‘God – number 11, welcome back to heaven.’ Following three being ruled out for offside, his first goal finally came in the March against Fulham at home, the same opposition that he had scored his first ever goal. The next came in the following month and was of great personal significance for Fowler. As much as can be said about their God, there is only one King of the Kop and when Fowler scored the opener against West Brom it moved him above, in Fowler’s opinion, ‘one of the greatest players ever’. In one-and-a-half seasons back at Anfield, Fowler had shown glimpses of his former self. He was by no means the Fowler of the late 90’s but he was still providing goals for his team, his return saw 12 goals in 39 games. May 2007 provided Fowler with his final game for Liverpool, unlike the turmoil that surrounded his first exit; he was afforded a proper goodbye from his adoring public. He was visibly moved during his final lap of honour at Anfield, he said that one of the proudest things he was able to do was to carry his youngest child around the pitch with him following his last game. For one last time the Liverpool fans were able to bid their hero an appropriate goodbye.

Following Liverpool, Fowler moved down a division on a free transfer to Cardiff City. Fowler’s fairy-tale Liverpool love affair continued as they were drawn away to Liverpool in a fourth round League Cup tie, following a brace from the man himself in the previous round. Fowler received another hero’s welcome on yet another Anfield return, where he played the full ninety minutes but fell to a 2-1 defeat. Injuries that had followed Fowler’s whole career returned and he missed out on Cardiff’s FA Cup Final against Portsmouth. The next move was Fowler’s last in England as he spent three months at Paul Ince’s Blackburn. Then began the foreign tour of Australia, with North Queensland Fury and Perth Glory, and Thailand where he became player-manager of Muangthong United. In his 67 games away from Britain, he scored 20 goals. In 2012 a return to England at Blackpool fell through, yet it was not until Steven Gerrard announced his retirement officially in 2015.

Fowler’s career was over, he has investigated further coaching and is favoured for the upcoming vacancy at Steven Gerrard’s Under 18’s. However, it appears his legacy will always remain as a player. Fowler was a fan on the pitch, despite being raised as an Evertonian, all Liverpool fans felt that Fowler represented them. He had the talent to back up his likeability, many goals from an early age showcased his unerring ability in front of goal. One-on-ones, chips, tap-ins, free-kicks and long-range efforts, Fowler was the complete package. Goals upon goals rewarded him with his famous nickname and he looked a dead cert to be a bona fide Liverpool legend. Fall outs with Houllier hampered his legacy but Fowler will forever be known as an Anfield legend. But he should have had so many more games in a red shirt. It seems baffling that Houllier would force out a man who would give anything for the club. He should have been at Anfield for life; only retirement trips abroad and down the divisions should be the destination for local lads with so much ability. Jamie Carragher and Gerrard were afforded this respect and nurturing, Fowler was forced out at a time where he should have received the loyalty that he always offered. The people who didn’t forget this were the Liverpool fans, they remembered all he had given to the club and they wanted a return as much as the man himself. A lot of credit should be given to Benítez and Parry who brought him back, they realised his importance to the fans and he didn’t fail to deliver. Of course, he was not the Fowler of old, but what he did provide was experience in the dressing room and glimpses of his former self. Fowler is and remains a Liverpool legend and perhaps the only benefit that came from his shock departure in 2001 was that he could return. He said himself that the greatest moment of his career was his return, a love lost made it the greatest love of all. Fowler and the Liverpool fans have an unbreakable bond and he will be remembered on the Kop for generations to come.

By Peter Kenny Jones with artwork by Sandra Sanchez

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