For Liverpool, Robbie Fowler was the name of the 90s. Between their last league title in 1990 and the treble-winning campaign of 2000/01, Liverpool were only able to add one FA Cup and a League Cup to their overflowing trophy cabinet. But Fowler’s goals, performances and personality provided much-needed inspiration during a period of unprecedented mediocrity for the Reds following the unbridled, unrelenting success of the 70s and 80s.
Nicknamed simply ‘God’ by the Liverpool faithful, Fowler’s was a concise yet effective nickname and few players have been held in such regard on Merseyside, even through the silverware-laden decades which preceded him. Capable of some truly breathtaking finishes from just about any height, angle or scenario in-and-around the penalty area, as well as exquisite pieces of skill and deft touches, all with that wand of a left foot, Robbie Fowler was so much more than just an efficient goal-poacher; though he was certainly that too.
Born and raised in Toxteth, Merseyside, there was always a good chance that, as a local lad and an academy product, Liverpool’s supporters would readily warm to him, regardless of his allegiance to Everton growing up. However, it became clear very early on in his career that Anfield had a truly special player on their hands, such was the instant and resonating impact he had upon breaking into the first team.
In 1993, Fowler came off the Liverpool bench to mark his debut – a League Cup game against Fulham – with a goal, before astonishingly netting a further five times in the second leg of the tie. For reasons best known to the man himself, the various iterations of the League Cup over the years were an absolute goldmine for Fowler throughout his career. By the end of his two spells at Anfield, he boasted a simply awesome strike rate of 29 goals in 35 games in the competition and lifted the trophy twice as a Liverpool player.
The first of these successes arrived in 1995. The boy from Toxteth scored the winning goal in each leg of a semi-final clash with Crystal Palace. His teammate and fellow Liverpool legend Steve McManaman stole the show with a brace in the final, securing victory over Bolton and allowing Fowler to lift the first silverware of his career just a week shy of his 20th birthday. He had enjoyed a magnificent season, far beyond what was expected of such a young player who, by rights, should still have been finding his feet in the Premier League.
Fowler finished the 1994/95 campaign as Liverpool’s top scorer, taking over from an ageing Ian Rush as the club’s most potent marksman with 31 goals in all competitions. He was named PFA Young Player of the Year at the end of the season, and 12 months later would become only the second player ever, alongside Ryan Giggs, to retain the award; these two have since been joined by Wayne Rooney and Dele Alli as repeat winners.
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However, one achievement from that superb campaign arguably stands above all others, particularly in shaping Fowler’s legacy and in football fans’ memory of him: when he put three goals past Arsenal in the space of just four minutes and 33 seconds, Fowler registering the fastest hat-trick in Premier League history.
Arsenal’s defensive line was arguably the best in the country at the time, but club greats Martin Keown, Lee Dixon and Tony Adams endured one of the most torturous five-minute spells of their illustrious careers, forced to watch England’s number one, David Seaman, pick the ball out of his net three times and hoof it back to the halfway line with increasing disbelief. This remarkable record stood for over 20 years and, although it was eventually broken by Sadio Mané in 2015, the teenage Fowler’s lightning-quick treble will forever be an iconic moment in the annals of English football.
The second of his League Cup triumphs came as part of the mini-treble of 2000/01. In the penultimate season of his first spell at Anfield, Fowler finally realised the spoils his talent had warranted for several years. He marked the Worthington Cup final by lashing a fearsome half-volley into the top corner, to give Liverpool the lead against Birmingham, sparking the classic commentary line from Peter Drury: “Fowler’s hit! Fowler’s goal! Always Robbie Fowler’s competition!” Liverpool eventually clinched the trophy on penalties; naturally, Fowler found the net in the shootout as well.
Less than three months later, Fowler won both the FA Cup and UEFA Cup in the same week, but there were signs his time as Liverpool’s star striker was coming to an end. And just as Fowler himself had, in effect, ushered out the great Rush when he burst onto the scene in the early 90s, there was a new kid on the block at the turn of the century as well.
Michael Owen, who started ahead of him in the FA Cup final, stole the show with two goals to sink Arsenal and almost single-handedly complete a domestic cup double. Four days later, Fowler was once again consigned to a place amongst the subs for an extraordinary UEFA Cup final against Alavés, although this time he made a scoring appearance from the bench in a gloriously chaotic 5-4 extra-time victory.
Fowler would only play a further 17 times in the red of Liverpool before a switch across the M62 to Leeds in December 2001. The system of constant squad rotation under Gérard Houllier and a pre-season disagreement with Phil Thompson had pushed the Toxteth Terror towards the exit door. Fowler boasted a decent goal return in his two years at Leeds, with 14 in 31 appearances, but injury problems and a worsening financial crisis at the club meant he was never able to properly settle, and, midway through the 2003/04 campaign, Fowler moved on to Manchester City.
At this point, Fowler was by no means the explosive talent he had been in his pomp at Anfield, but he was still City’s joint-highest scorer in the 2004/05 season, helping to fire the Citizens to eighth – at the time, their best ever Premier League finish. In spite of the odd glimpse of his undoubted class, Fowler continued to struggle with form and fitness and, in January 2006, he made an irresistible move back to Liverpool on a free transfer.
The underwhelming nature of Fowler’s time at both Leeds and Manchester City only made his return to Anfield even more special. Having failed to find his feet elsewhere, God had returned home. Despite the slightly unamiable manner of his exit in 2001, the relationship between Fowler and the Liverpool fans had remained untarnished during their five years apart.
His return at the age of 31 was a nostalgic transfer, but Rafa Benítez was not the sort of manager who readily engaged in such halcyon throwback storylines, so there had to be at least an element of footballing logic. Fowler would indeed contribute successfully during his second spell at Anfield, with a handful of important goals during his final 18 months at the club.
In 2006, he scored the first and only two Champions League goals of his career against Galatasaray, but nothing confirms Fowler’s cult status at Anfield quite like the emotional rollercoaster of his final appearance in May 2007, against Charlton. He was treated to the full works: captain’s armband for the day, substituted to a standing ovation in the final moments. The only thing missing was a dream goal to cap his send-off in style. Fowler remarked in his post-match interview that he had spent most of the game “just trying to hold the tears in.”
It was a far more poignant exit than the one witnessed in 2001, as the Liverpool faithful knew it was for good this time. In a bonus 18 months at Anfield, Fowler had helped his side to an ill-fated seventh European Cup final, and there’s no doubt this was the last real highpoint of his playing career. He went on to endure brief stints at Cardiff, Blackburn, Northern Fury and Perth Glory in Australia, and lastly Muangthong United of the Thai League, before eventually retiring in 2015 aged 39.
The term ‘natural goalscorer’ is thrown around with much abandon nowadays but Fowler was exactly that, and his legacy, first and foremost, stands as one of the most merciless and prolific finishers the Premier League has ever seen. He is currently sixth in the all-time Premier League scoring charts at the time of writing, with 163 strikes to his name, and no Liverpool player in history has bagged more than his 128 Premier League goals for the club.
Fowler remains a cult hero at Liverpool, idolised unreservedly throughout his time at Anfield, and is still today one of those rare players who simply wasn’t appreciated anywhere else in football in quite the same way. Due in part to the era he was a part of, Fowler is one of Liverpool’s least decorated sons, but this was part of what made him so utterly adored. A Toxteth lad who rose up through the mire during a period of indifference; celebrated as a deity on Merseyside.
By Jamie Bell @JamieBell97