Fowler: Prodigal Son Returns – a Great Gamble

Robbie Fowler is back at Liverpool, reportedly on loan until the end of the season. The Reds are a little short of strikers, and while it appears Fowler is well past his best, this could be the environment where he rediscovers his ‘old’ self … if it still lies within him.

When Rafa said he needed to be inventive this winter, he wasn’t lying. Djibril Cissé isn’t helping himself off the field at least, with his arrest in the last 24 hours for common assault, and you have to wonder what his future holds; as I said the other day, I haven’t given up hope on the current number nine, but I don’t see the harm it can do to have one of the club’s greatest number nines back at Anfield, as part of the attacking roster.

Of course, it could also end up being a huge anti-climax, but it’s not really Liverpool who have anything to lose, given it’s a short-term loan deal. It’s Fowler, and the regard in which he is held, who is most likely to suffer if things go wrong. In his youth he had comparisons with Ian Rush to contend with; now it will be comparisons with his former self.

Fowler is the finest finisher I’ve ever seen. I was at Craven Cottage for his first goal for the Reds in 1993, and at Leicester in 2001 for his last, and saw the vast majority in between. So I’m incredibly excited by this news, if fully aware that we are not getting the 21-year-old Fowler, but an altogether different beast.

If the Reds only need a ‘finisher’ to make the difference, there is none more natural in the game than Fowler; or rather, there was none. Why shouldn’t Benítez, with all his own renowned qualities, try to find out if it’s still in there? This will without question be the finest side Fowler has ever played in, so he should find chances falling his way. I don’t see him being a first choice, but you never know. He would certainly enjoy playing off Peter Crouch.

His leaving Liverpool in October 2001 was a major shock. I remember where I was when I heard the news. But he was also looking far from his best in 2001/02, becoming increasingly peripheral under Gérard Houllier. Having said that, he had contributed 17 goals the season before, many of which were key in securing the Treble and the Champions League spot, and scored a hat-trick at Filbert Street the week before his final appearance in the famous red shirt, when he was ignominiously hauled off at half-time with Liverpool down to ten men against Sunderland.

I never thought I’d see this day. If I’m perfectly honest, I would rather have seen Owen, who still is unquestionably a class act, return if I had to choose between the two former stars. But there’s something about the relationship between Liverpool fans and Robbie Fowler that defies a rational explanation. And unlike Owen, there is no massive financial outlay at stake.

Fowler and Liverpool: maybe it is like all those double-acts in history where together a chemistry undoubtedly exists, exceeding the sum of its parts, when apart there is far less to get excited about. Lennon and McCartney are an obvious local example.

Will ‘God’ only taint the memories we hold so dear? Maybe. But when wearing a red shirt he has an aura, a magic about him, that could lift the players (especially Carra and Gerrard), and certainly lift the fans. In a strange way, it could end up being a masterstroke by Benítez, but that is said in full awareness that it is, first and foremost, a gamble. With Fernando Morientes another class act failing to live up to past glories, it may look even more risky, but there is so little to lose, with no transfer fee involved.

Would Fowler suit Benítez’s style of play? Yes. Certainly so at Anfield.

Robbie was at his best when the Reds weren’t looking to counter-attack, but played possession football that involved building pressure on the opposition defence. Many of his goals were about reacting first in a crowded penalty area, or finding space in a crowded penalty area. He was not someone who could chase balls over the top, as the Reds increasingly looked to do under Houllier.

He is excellent at linking play, and is an intelligent footballer. As the Reds aim to play intelligent football under Rafa, he therefore has a decent chance of succeeding. He would obviously need to stay fit, and that’s something he’s had trouble doing for the last eight years, with a succession of often odd collision-based injuries (clattered by Everton keeper, then the hip injury for Leeds) hampering him.

Does he still have the desire and hunger? He’s apparently the richest footballer in the country, with more properties than the Queen. He has other priorities in life, with a young family. But maybe he will rediscover his passion, at his spiritual home and without his old manager and assistant manager present.

You know he can handle the pressure of playing in front of the Kop from experience, but this time it’ll be different. He was someone who enjoyed the freedom of playing for fun as a kid; as he got older he seemed to be carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders.

I’d give it only a 50-50 chance of success, and maybe that’s being generous. Class is permanent, but that doesn’t mean I’d want to see Kenny Dalglish brought out of retirement. While class is permanent, fitness is not. Having said that, Fowler is only 30, which is still far from being too old, and has been back playing for Man City for a few weeks, so he’ll arrive in decent condition.

But even at 50-50, it’s a great gamble to take. I’m happy, I’m hopeful, but above all I’m fascinated. We can only hope it proves a success and leads to a permanent deal, but whatever happens, it will be certainly be interesting.

© Paul Tomkins 2006

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