LET’S TALK about strikers – goalscorers to be precise. The players who make the difficult seem unerringly easy. The ones who generally tend to finish off their dinner. They’re the elusive ones, out there for personal gain above all else. And why shouldn’t they be? They’re the match-winners after all.
Rewind back to 20 February 1992, and the definition of a striker was changed in English football irrevocably. The inception of the Premier League and the billions of pounds that came flooding through the boardrooms via television deals and globalised sponsorships heralded a new dawn in who English football fans would witness gracing their domestic league.
And what timing it was. The national game was still reeling from the aftermath of Hillsborough, the dissent and violence of the 1980s, a painful exit at Italia 90, and a less-than-promising future under new England boss Graham Taylor.
So let’s talk about strikers; the ones who make you dream. I recently conducted a rather high-tech survey when I asked five of my friends to name the six best strikers in Premier League history. The same names cropped up: Henry, Cantona, Zola, Drogba, Shearer, Rooney. Some added Suárez and others, Owen. Nobody mentioned Robbie Fowler. For that matter, nobody mentioned Andy Cole or Teddy Sheringham. Lest we forget, Cole is the Premier League’s third-highest goalscorer with 187 strikes.
For me, it was strange to bear witness to such callous regard for the brilliance of Robbie Fowler, but I believe that many outside of Liverpool Football Club and its fans generally overlook the Toxteth-born striker when naming the Premier League’s finest.
It’s not every day that Liverpool fans affectionately name a bleach blonde, controversial youngster, God. Less so when the club had just come off the back of 15 years of sustained success at home and abroad. It goes some way to explaining the impact Fowler had on a struggling city, club and fans when he burst on to the scene as fresh-faced 18-year-old against Fulham in September 1993.
Who could’ve imagined that he’d treat himself to fish and chips to celebrate five goals against the same opposition just two weeks later? Not many, I suspect. His record at youth level was indeed excellent but it gave no indication as to what Fowler was about to achieve during a period of mediocrity at Anfield.
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The raw stats don’t lie. Forget heat-maps, touches tables and pass accuracy – Fowler netted 183 goals in all competitions across two spells. Couple that with a number of goals for Leeds and Manchester City, and his lasting impact on Premier League football is clear.
Above the goals and naked figures, to truly understand the brilliance of the ‘Toxteth Terror’ you need to watch him. Left foot, right foot, it didn’t matter. Inside or outside the box; with or without power; his game for three seasons between 1994 and 1997 was as complete as any striker in the world. Ninety-eight goals in those three years elevated him above all others on the red half of Merseyside.
While the likes of Alan Shearer and Andy Cole – other superb finishers of the time – were typically English in their style of play, Fowler had something else. Who can forget his world-class goal against SK Brann in the 1996-97 Cup Winners’ Cup? If Agüero or Kane managed that today, we’d be talking about goal of the season. As it goes, Fowler never came close that year as it was the season of Trevor Sinclair’s gravity-defying overhead kick for Queens Park Rangers against Barnsley in the FA Cup. Narrowly missing out perhaps sums up Fowler best.
In spite of his consistent form for Liverpool, he was often overlooked for England duty, finally making his debut in 1996 prior to the European Championships. Many England fans called on Terry Venables to start the gifted striker alongside Shearer in attack. Sadly for the youngster, his role in the home championships was limited, and it would be a precursor to an unfulfilled international career that perhaps offers a large reason why he’s often overlooked when we name the best Premier League strikers.
He didn’t help himself at key moments either. He was the pin-up boy of the ‘Spice Boys’ – a ridiculous term first coined by the Daily Mail in response to an equally ridiculous decision by some members of the Liverpool squad to bleach their hair blonde. A lack of success on the pitch following a disappointing defeat to Manchester United in the 1996 FA Cup final ensured the name stuck. It was now synonymous with Liverpool’s underachievers.
With his new found fame and rumours of high-profile relationships, Fowler struggled to maintain discipline, with injuries taking their toll. Few knew it at the time but the striker’s best days were already behind him. His brilliance was at times still evident and flashes of his prowess continued to bring hope to Anfield.
Throughout his journey at the club, Fowler’s presence alone was enough. Knowing he was on the teamsheet or back training again, or in the city for dinner, was enough to put a smile on the faces of those around at the time. It’s a unique trait to bring to a club, that of unbridled joy.
Controversy followed during the hardest times. The now infamous ‘sniffing the line’ celebration against Everton in the derby resulted in a £60,000 fine, four-match ban and a bizarre claim by Gérard Houllier that it was, in fact, a Cameroonian grass eating celebration that he learnt from team-mate Rigobert Song. There’s defending your players, then there’s that.
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Amid the tough times and antics, brilliance was still eminent. His England career was all but over and by 2002 he had played for the Three Lions for the last time. Twenty-six caps and seven goals do his talent no justice whatsoever. There are what ifs aplenty. What if he hadn’t got injured so often? What if he played in a better Liverpool team? What if he played in today’s era of versatile strikers and fluid formations?
The bottom line is that they don’t matter. Let me tell you why he is one of the top six strikers in Premier League history. Few struck it better off their strongest side. Fewer still struck it as sweetly on their weaker side. Few knew where the goal was better than Fowler and fewer still knew how to find it as consistently. His stats are remarkable in an average Liverpool era.
His movement off the ball was years ahead of his time as he dropped into little pockets, moved it on to Steve McManaman and searched for the next sniff of goal. For a man only 1.75 metres tall, his heading was exceptional. He wasn’t your English brute in the air but much like an Agüero or Suárez, he knew how to head. He set up goals; more than Cole and Shearer. He worked incredibly hard to win back possession high up the pitch and required fewer chances than most to convert.
Strikers will ultimately evoke memories more than most other players, and for me it’s the small things that made Fowler. His silly nose breathing thingy. The day he let Paul Ince know the score. The four-and-a-half minute hat-trick. I could go on and on but if you’re not a Liverpool fan you’ll probably get bored.
Either way, the aura of Fowler was summed up best on his return to the club in 2006 against Birmingham. Coming on as a substitute, his name bellowed around Anfield like a train whistling along the tracks. It was like he’d never been away. Six years of promise and development under Houllier and Benítez had changed the club in many ways, but the love for Fowler remained. It was poignant that his first goal back in a red shirt was against Fulham.
How many players can command such a response on their return to a club? Most nowadays get booed the minute they leave, yet Fowler played in Manchester and Leeds; two northern rivals of the Reds. But it didn’t matter. He may have been long past his best but he was home and there’s comfort in that. Perhaps those old enough remembered the joy he brought the fans in the early years as the club settled into a rapid decline post-Hillsborough.
Fans of others clubs will likely disagree with my assertion, and with reason, because strikers are the ones that we look to as children. We look to them to show us the way and score the goal that beats the dreaded rival. For Liverpool fans, God will always be Fowler. Suárez, Torres, Sturridge; these players will inevitably come and go. A few, however, live on, and their names and brilliance are forever etched into the very fabric and history of a club. Fowler is one.
By Omar Saleem @omar_saleem