No one felt football’s cruelty quite like Robbie Fowler. When he came rattling onto the scene in the early 90s, Fowler was the spirit of the time made flesh: young, impulsive, wildly successful and impossibly prosperous. He scored goals not so much by the bucketload as by the industrial-sized vat: one on his debut against Fulham aged 18, five in the return leg a fortnight later, and 100 or so more by the time he was 21, still a good half-decade from his prime.
Except Fowler’s prime had already been and gone. By his mid-20s he’d had his pace robbed by chronic injuries, his fun squashed by a disciplinarian manager and his place in the side taken by a younger model in Michael Owen. He was ushered out the back door, to a Leeds outfit in the early throes of a slow death, then on to a mediocre Manchester City. Cardiff, Muangthong United and the inaptly named Perth Glory were all to come in his nomadic later career. If Fowler epitomised the joy of youth, he also epitomised its brutal brevity.
Yet no one felt football’s generosity quite like Robbie Fowler. His talent not only gave an ordinary lad from Toxteth the time of his life, pocketing millions along the way, but it made him a bona fide hero. Rarely has a set of supporters taken a player to their hearts like Liverpool fans did Fowler, and rarely has a player taken that sort of fan-on-the-pitch delight in his job. Fowler was Liverpudlian to the core, and his city – or half of it at least – worshiped him. Plenty still do.
The cherry on the cake, though, was that he got to do it all over again. In January 2006, the famously unemotional Rafa Benitez surprised the world by bringing a 30-year-old Fowler back to Anfield. His bleach-blond hair was long gone and his torso not as lithe as it once was, but the left foot was still in working order, the glint in the eye unmistakable. Unveiled in front of the Kop, Fowler said he felt “like a kid waking up on Christmas morning”. It was an apt analogy for a player whose golden years typified the exuberance of youth. Most of us only get to be young once; football gave Fowler another crack at it.
This strange mix of fortune and lucklessness that marked Fowler’s career was distilled into one evening on 1 February, when he made his first Liverpool appearance since rejoining, as Birmingham came to town. The occasion served as a reminder of football’s power to properly warm the heart. Before kickoff the Kop unveiled a banner reading “Fowler, God, 11, welcome back to heaven” (the striker’s old shirt number now belonged to the rather more mortal Djibril Cisse) and although he was only named on the bench, the noise within Anfield when his name was announced before kickoff was deafening.
Much of the game’s opening hour was marked by the prodigal son being serenaded by an adoring crowd, the undeniable mawkishness of it all nicely offset by a tongue-in-cheek half-time setlist that included Odissey’s Going Back To My Roots, Manfred Mann’s With God on Our Side and the new track from Leo Sayer, the 70s disco king who’d just returned to the top of the charts – introduced over the tannoy as “living proof that comebacks can be successful”.
Liverpool went 1-0 up, Fowler was brought on to a roar of communal catharsis, and Birmingham promptly equalised. The stage was set and, with the game ticking into injury time, Fowler stormed onto it. When a long throw was hurled his way, he hung back, exercised that telekinetic ability of old, coaxing the ball towards him in a crowded penalty box, and pounced. The bicycle kick, executed with Olympian grace in defiance of his aging body, was blammed home from six yards, Kop end.
As the net rippled, Fowler sprung from the ground with childlike glee, those groaning knees suddenly as good as new. Anfield was about to party like it was 1996.
Except it didn’t. There was a party pooper on the scene in the shape of a beady-eyed lineman who wasted little time in drawing a line under all this fun. Fowler had been well offside. He spotted the flag – but only after a cruel second or two, and as Anfield’s joy turned to anguish, Fowler dragged his fingernails down his face in torment.
No one felt football’s generosity quite like Robbie Fowler. No one felt football’s cruelty quite like Robbie Fowler. It was a night that encapsulated his career.