Rafa Benitez and Milan – Robbie Fowler’s “devastating” end to Liverpool career

Robbie Fowler has opened up on the “devastating” end to his Liverpool career which saw him watch on from the stands as Liverpool succumbed to defeat in the Champions League final.

On May 23, 2007, Liverpool were in their second Champions League final in as many years – with the side they toppled in Istanbul waiting on their home turf for revenge.

It would have been Fowler’s first taste of European Cup final action, had Rafa Benitez selected the then 32-year-old in the matchday squad.

Instead, he was left to watch on from the stands as the Reds fell to a 2-1 defeat at the hands of AC Milan, with Dirk Kuyt, Boudewijn Zenden, Jermaine Pennant and Steven Gerrard tasked with leading the attack while Peter Crouch and Craig Bellamy sat on the bench.

In his second spell at the club, after arriving in January 2006 on a free transfer, Fowler of 2006/07 was not the Fowler of old, regularly deployed as a late game-changer rather than a starter – with five of his 10 starting berths across all competitions ending in his withdrawal.

There was to be no contract renewal and a second farewell to the Anfield faithful awaited, but instead of it taking place in Milan on better terms it was against Charlton at Anfield in the final Premier League game of the season.

And the feeling of missing out or being afforded the chance to “offer something” in Milan remains a sore point for one of Liverpool’s greatest-ever strikers.

“Even though I knew I wouldn’t start against Milan, I still felt I could be on the bench. And if you’re on the bench you can dream,” Fowler wrote in his column for the Mirror.

Liverpool, England - Saturday, February 24, 2007: Liverpool's Robbie Fowler scores the opening goal against Sheffield United from the penalty spot during the Premiership match at Anfield. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

“But I didn’t make the matchday squad and I’m not ashamed to admit it was devastating.

“I was really ­emotional when I knew I wasn’t in. On the way to the stadium, I had a tear in my eye. But it was Rafa ­Benitez’s prerogative. He was paid to make tough decisions.

“I will say this though, and without wishing any lack of respect to any player, but I felt there was a case to be made for giving me that place on the bench.

“Rafa picked someone who’d hardly made an impact at Anfield at all. And that’s being kind. And he was leaving too.

“I guess I was picturing being on the pitch at the final whistle, and ­Liverpool winning the trophy. It would have been the perfect way to say goodbye.

“As it was, Crouchy and Craig ­Bellamy both didn’t start, which as we lost, and with the benefit of hindsight, suggests Rafa got his team wrong. With those two on the bench, Rafa wanted balance, so picked a wide player as a potential sub ahead of me – though I couldn’t work out how he’d ever get on the pitch.

“What puzzles me still is when we were losing 2-0 with just a few minutes to go, Steve Finnan came off, and the manager put on Alvaro Arbeloa, ­another full-back.

“Milan were no great shakes. I think we were a match for them, certainly, on paper we had a better chance against them than the 2005 team. Just tells you everything about football, that.

Athens, Greece - Wednesday, May 23, 2007: Liverpool's manager Rafael Benitez looks dejected after losing 2-1 to AC Milan during the UEFA Champions League Final at the OACA Spyro Louis Olympic Stadium. (Pic by Jason Roberts/Propaganda)

“And it gnaws away at a lot of us who travelled to Greece – that was a game we should have won. Another glorious Liverpool European chapter. Instead, there was no ­fairytale ending for me.

“I remember going on the pitch at the end, and trudging around for a bit, devastated at the result, devastated at not being part of it.

“You know, as a striker, I always think, with us trailing 2-1, I could have got the equaliser. That’s how I’d always see it.”

What if? It’s one of life’s greatest questions and Fowler playing a role in the 2007 squad is potentially one of them, but while the former No. 9 could argue that it “sounds a bit like I was cursed at ­Liverpool” there is always a cup half full point of view.

“It was a fairytale playing for Liverpool… and my fairytale ending just hasn’t arrived yet,” Fowler added.