Close-up; Robbie Fowler; The natural in a rush to win

Liverpool are resisting the temptation to curb the extravagant instincts of their gifted goalscorer.
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The Independent Online
Often , after an explosive start to a career, an exuberant natural sporting talent runs into the realisation that this isn't quite such an easy game after all. Fear of failure can overcome the joy of simply playing, self-doubt can undermine intuition. Perhaps the exceptional Robbie Fowler will remain an exception.

As others have arrived at speed only to slow down, Fowler is still untouched by "that difficult second season" syndrome. Three years and counting after being thrust into the Liverpool attack, he is still thrusting and we are still counting: 103 goals in 166 games after five goals in two games during the past week. Four against Middlesbrough eight days ago, aided by a revitalised Stan Collymore, meant that he had become the fastest in the 'Pool to the century, surpassing Ian Rush. He still has a way to go to beat his mentor's Anfield record of 328 but 16 more will take him past Ian St John into the club's top 10 scorers. At this rate, this season will see it.

Fowler certainly kicked off with a rush, learning at the feet of the master. He was nursed through the 1993-94 season as an 18-year-old, after scoring all five goals in his fourth match, a League Cup tie against Fulham. He still ended with 18, and in the two full seasons since has totalled 31 and 36.

At times there has been an excess off the field, too. There have been tales of the Toxteth scally and the MP's daughter, despoiled hotel rooms and a cuff from Neil Ruddock for going too far in a prank. An image endures of him giggling inanely as Paul Gascoigne pulled faces at the camera in the England dug-out in Hong Kong earlier this year.

Then, on the pitch, two seasons ago he was fined for baring his buttocks at Leicester fans and was subsequently dropped after a goalless spell. The new-fangled nose clip, supposed to increase flow of oxygen into the lungs and improve stamina, also contributes to the flash picture. Mostly it is the affected manner of a lad - "actually shy and quiet," he has said of himself - growing up in the Viz-Loaded-Oasis culture, and having to do so in public. It has, however, presented the Liverpool manager Roy Evans with dilemmas, even if most figureheads would happily deal with them.

It is always a balancing act with a player of outstanding natural gifts. How much do you make him do, how much do you let him be? Do you curb the extravagant instincts - as revealed in his spontaneous celebrations of a goal - that can sometimes get him into trouble out of the arena or indulge them in the hope that they flower within it.

Evans has addressed the issue of keeping Fowler on the rails with a toot of whistle and wave of flag. The manager left him out at the beginning of last season to head off complacency, then talked of him being a smashing lad. "You don't want to take away from his personality," says Evans. "There's a danger that if we concentrate on developing other facets of his game, Robbie could lose that natural instinct."

Nevertheless, Evans spoke after the Middlesbrough match of being pleased by Fowler's work for the team, in true first-line-of-defence Rush fashion, as much with the goals. In his analysis on Match of the Day, Alan Hansen rightly highlighted Fowler's ability, also honed alongside Rush in training, to steal a yard on a watchful marker with a dart hither and a dash thither.

It can, to an extent, be taught and learned, as another Liverpool legend Kevin Keegan's playing career illustrated, but Fowler clearly had a head start in sharpness of thought that was given by God (Fowler's overblown nickname awarded by team-mates). When the Liverpool scout Jimmy Aspinall saw him score a hat-trick for the city's under-11 schoolboys, he just knew the club had to have him.

As well as the quantity, which also says something about the defensive deficiencies of the Premiership, it is the sheer variety of Fowler's goals that has so impressed. They fly in off his left foot from 25 yards but he gladly accepts the tap-in; he can leap to head home a cross by the underestimated Stig-Inge Bjornebye or dive bravely to convert one from Steve McManaman.

"He often shoots early, doesn't mind where he shoots from and seems to get late fade on his shots, like a golfer," said the Aston Villa goalkeeper Mark Bosnich after another Fowler hat-trick (he holds the record for the Premiership's fastest: 4 minutes 33 seconds against Arsenal). In this, it has to be said, he is helped by the modern lightweight ball which swerves and dips.

Or is it because he has learnt cannily to make best use of it? Added Bosnich: "He usually gets 10 out of 10 shots on target and with 9 out of 10 he'll hit the corners. If he is doing that deliberately, his accuracy is quite amazing."

Fowler himself talks with the simple pragmatism of the natural goalscorer, one with which that striker he most admires, Alan Shearer, would identify. "A goal's a goal," he says. "You can score them from one yard or from 30 yards but they don't count for two if you score them from 30 yards."

The clamour, should Fowler's supply not unaccountably dry up in the next six weeks, could be for the England coach Glenn Hoddle to pair him with Shearer for the crucial World Cup qualifying match against Italy at Wembley on 12 February. Tomorrow night will provide a chance to compare and contrast when Newcastle and Liverpool confront each other in a potentially epic encounter at St James' Park.

Watching England train in Georgia last month it became clear why Teddy Sheringham remains thefavoured striking partner. His touch and vision provide a well-tempered foil for Shearer; Fowler's are still developing, as his four brief appearances under Terry Venables testified.

Fowler will surely need those qualities one day when his breathtaking pace recedes and when an improvement in Premiership defending - which still allows a striker to feel that if his touch lets him down on one chance, another will soon come along - gathers more pace. Experience will also help the process naturally. The words of Bob Paisley, pointing out that Kenny Dalglish ran the first five yards in his head, will no doubt be quoted to him within Anfield.

In the meantime, it is probably best not to tinker too much. Ask Fowler himself how he does it and he will mumble something about the right place at the right time. He seems not to understand it fully himself; as with comedy, over-analyse and you miss the moment. You hope it is a while before Robbie Fowler discovers that this simple game is not easy.

`He still calls me Sir'

What they say about Fowler

Ian Rush: I leave Liverpool in good hands. Robbie will probably eclipse all that I achieved at Liverpool.

Roy Evans: He has fire in his belly. He gets himself into trouble with his mouthpiece.

Bob Lynch (manager of Liverpool Schools Under-14s): He's got to be worth his weight in gold to Liverpool. He still calls me Sir and rings me every week.

Paul McGrath (when with Villa): They say he can get better but tell me how?

Terry Venables: His finishing in tight areas is terrific. Where other people can't get shots in, he does.

Fowler on Fowler

A lot of my mates are unemployed and I could have been one of them. I am a naturally down-to-earth person. If ever I got big-headed my dad would put me down.

I watched some kids playing in the street and heard them saying `Fowler does this, Fowler does that, great goal by Fowler' and it's hard to take in. Not long ago I was out there doing the same thing.

If Razor [Ruddock] had hit me properly, I don't think I would have been here to talk about it.

I know I've got to grow up, because it was just childish things that were happening.

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