This feature is part of Virtuoso
The year is 1994 and the late-August sun gleams down on the Anfield pitch as Liverpool lock horns with a powerfully-constructed Arsenal side. On the day, those entering Anfield as non-believers would leave believers because this was the day the red half of Merseyside would meet God. And, much like all things mysterious, it was a fresh-faced 19-year-old Robbie Fowler that would lay waste to the Arsenal backline with a performance that clocked in the fasted hat-trick in Premier League history until it was broken in May of 2015 by future Liverpool forward Sadio Mané.
The game itself is one of countless brilliant performances that catapulted Fowler into the upper echelons of a football club with no shortage of iconic and clinical strikers in its history. All it took was four minutes and 33 seconds to carve his way through the Arsenal defence as well as his name into Liverpool legend and Premier League history.
What makes the performance so noteworthy is not that the record for fastest hat-trick in the Premier League era stood for 21 years, but rather that the feat was a sign of things to come for Fowler in Liverpool red. The Toxteth-born striker seemed to be well aware that there’s only one chance to make a good first impression in his first season at Liverpool and with England’s under-18 squad. He did just that. Fowler proved himself to be a clinical finisher by notching 12 goals in 28 outings, including a five-goal game against Fulham in the second round of the League Cup.
In Fowler, Liverpool had a striker with an eye for goal, a blessed left foot, and the intelligence to time his runs to perfection. In his second season, Fowler cemented his place in the line-up, turning out alongside Liverpool legend Ian Rush. But that game against Arsenal – who themselves had built a secure and disciplined backline of Lee Dixon, Martin Keown, Tony Adams and Nigel Winterburn, with David Seaman in goal – made Fowler’s production and the feat all the more incredible.
Perhaps what is most striking about Fowler’s performance is the pace and ferocity of his onslaught of Arsenal’s experienced backline. It is possible that Fowler’s nickname, “God”, transferred from a light-hearted jibe to sacred anointing as the young hitman was baptized in the sunshine of the Premier League, while Arsenal’s defence boiled in the waters and wake of Fowler’s battery of goals.
Of course, hindsight provides the most insight and Fowler’s goalscoring exploits were not a flash in the pan. He would go on to become Liverpool’s fifth all-time top scorer with 183 goals in 369 appearances, spread across two spells at the club. Additionally, Fowler solidified his place as the Premier League’s sixth-highest scorer with 163 goals.
The magnitude of that hat-trick performance is perfectly summarized by Liverpool’s John Barnes, who set up the second goal for Fowler in Gavin Newsham’s book, You Can’t Win Anything With Kids: A History of the English Premier League. “We all knew how good Robbie was but after that hat-trick everyone else took notice as well. For a player so young to do that to Arsenal was incredible; at that time, if you scored once against them you didn’t score two and three. But Robbie did, and in no time at all. He announced his arrival to the Premier League that day.”
The first goal was created by a Keown mistake on a Jamie Redknapp ball that was whipped into the Arsenal box. Keown, who should have cleared the cross with a routine header, mistimed his jump and allowed the ball to drop to an equally lethal Rush whose inadvertent touch took the ball past Dixon and into the path of Fowler. The young striker would do the rest and score the first of his goals on the day after just 26 minutes. Little did the Anfield faithful and Arsenal defence know that Fowler was just getting started.
Two minutes later, Steve McManaman collected the ball in an advanced position in midfield and took the available space while Adams retreated. Dixon, however, was drawn to pressure McManaman, which freed up Fowler to ghost past the right-back and collect his pinpoint pass. With the poise of an experienced striker well beyond his 19 years, Fowler controlled the ball and struck from distance past Seaman into the far corner. At this point, Arsenal could do very little but hope for a modicum of damage control.
The Gunners did what any good team trying to halt the momentum of an attacker who can’t miss would do and began to surge forward with their own attack. But, after denying Ian Wright and Kevin Campbell, the Reds’ custodian David James did his part. Liverpool began to exploit Arsenal’s left wing again with Barnes orchestrating the attacking movement leading to the third goal.
Stig Inge Bjørnebye received a pass from Barnes and again cut inside an overly-committed Lee Dixon before passing back to Barnes, whose deft chip was a perfectly-weighted pass beyond and over Adams, into Fowler’s path. At this point, Fowler’s intelligence and timing were perfect and it was Adams who is rinsed by Fowler, but his attempt was saved by Seaman who did well to rush out and cut down the angle.
Oftentimes, it’s the follow-up play and eagerness to stay involved that separates strikers from goalscorers. Fowler collected the rebound and danced around an outstretched Keown and settled the ball on the touchline with his dominant left foot before placing it the net with his right foot, too swift for Nigel Winterburn to block the goal.
And so it makes perfect sense that Barnes, in a Guardian piece celebrating the hat-trick, heaped praise on Fowler. “That third goal showed what Robbie was all about,” reflected Barnes. “After the ‘keeper saved the first shot, he didn’t snatch at the ball or look to play it across the box. Instead he showed composure and a total lack of panic or fear. That is the mark of all great strikers. Robbie proved that was exactly what he was.”
What stands out that match against Arsenal is more than Fowler’s three goals against a formidable side as a young player, but that he solidified himself as not only striker but a pure goalscorer. Fowler’s movement ahead of the ball, the timing of his runs, anticipation, and ability to take his chances showed the versatility of the player. His style was just as much clinical as it was gritty and raw. And so Fowler truly blazoned himself upon the Premier League that afternoon.
Although the hat-trick against Arsenal remains iconic, Fowler would score an additional 22 goals that season bringing his total to 25 goals in 42, quite a return for a young striker finding his way in a physically demanding league. As for the hat-trick itself, it held the record for the fastest in the Premier League for 21 years and remains an iconic display for Liverpool.
But goals and performances count for nothing if we just remember the statistics. In true Fowler form, it was more than just his three goals against Arsenal. It was the way he scored, the manner in which he ran freely on the pitch, the smile he played with as he toyed with the Arsenal backline. Robbie Fowler did more than just get on the scoresheet that day. He made fans believe in him – a young, talented striker who was more like the people in the Kop than the executives in football’s boardrooms. And he did it in less than five minutes.
By Jon Townsend @jon_townsend3
Edited by Will Sharp @shillwarp