Red missed

He may have played in white then blue, but Robbie Fowler will always be a Red to David Bendelow who has moved from shock to acceptance over his transfer

The poll on a Liverpool website sum­med it up nicely. Asked about Robbie Fowler’s move to Leeds, 28 per cent claimed it was “the end of the world” while a more reasoned 25 per cent viewed it as “sound management”. But the 47 per cent voting “Cheers la, good luck” put it best. In other words, we had seen the best of Robbie Fowler and now the decent thing was to wave him on his way and wish him well. Injuries had taken their toll and the instinctive goal-­poacher who ran amok in the mid-1990s would never be as good.

Statistically it was hard to argue with. Fowler had scored just 34 goals in the past four seasons. But more powerful was the image of Fowler sat helplessly on the Liverpool bench. Michael Owen had taken his crown as the club’s number-one striker and Fowler could never come to terms with a rotation system – especially when it meant that he was the one occasionally rotated in when Owen or Emile Heskey needed a rest.

If only Houllier would give him an extended run, we thought. If only he got a good pre-season under his belt. If only he got his confidence back. But unfortunately the ifs never went away. Occasionally he would tease us with a hat-trick but we never quite believed he was back. Despite the persistent rumours, I was still in a state of minor shock when Fowler’s £11 million move to Elland Road was announced. Okay it wasn’t Manchester United, but at the time it seemed an odd de­cision to let him go to a team then considered title rivals.

As a Leeds-based journalist I was lucky enough to attend the press conference at Thorpe Arch. Although “lucky” may not be the right word – it felt more like a funeral. While Fowler said all the right things and held up his new white shirt, his heart just didn’t seem in it. I, meanwhile, had to battle an inner demon demanding I shout out: “Robbie, don’t do it.”

It was easy to see why Fowler had inspired such af­fection. His emergence came at a time when the great Liverpool dynasty had collapsed. Graeme Souness couldn’t find the right signings to kick-start a revival, but Fowler and Steve McManaman appeared right under our noses. Two local lads, full of spirit and bags of talent. But Fowler, with his flaws, inspired most affection. The fans loved him because he was just like them.

When Fowler made his move, debate raged. Would he come back to haunt us or had Houllier been prudent to cash in on a player who we risked losing, McManaman style, for nothing in 18 months? Fast forward to summer 2003 and there is no doubt who was right. Fowler’s problems have continued. He had his mo­ments with Leeds – scoring 12 goals in 22 games in his first season – but a hip injury led to an all-too familiar lay-off. And while Fowler recuperated, the club disintegrated around him. Chronically in debt, Leeds were forced to put Fowler up for sale and were probably lucky to find a buyer, Manchester City, to fork out £7m. Despite Kevin Kee­gan’s rousing words, Fowler has so far looked a shadow of his former self at Maine Road.

So how is Fowler viewed now? Personally, and oth­ers say the same, I still see him as a Liverpool player running around in a different shirt. I feel the same with McManaman. Because one is overseas and another at a team unlikely to pose a threat to our Premiership goals, we can still cheer their every move. Unlike the evil Nicolas Anelka, Robbie would surely not have the indecency to score a vital goal against his former club.

Whether Manchester United fans will still see David Beckham as “their” player, I doubt. Becks had none of the local ties which Fowler had and moved in social circles increasingly alien to most Old Trafford supporters. Interestingly, the biggest gripe from United fans has concerned Beckham’s transfer fee. Somehow it seems appropriate that Beckham will be remembered in terms of money and not genuine affection. It was very different in Fowler’s case.

From WSC 198 August 2003. What was happening this month