Football: Life just a twirl again for Flowers

Phil Shaw talks to the Leicester goalkeeper who is enjoying his return to the limelight after a frustrating spell in Blackburn Rovers' reserves
IN SIX MONTHS Tim Flowers went from being a member of England's World Cup squad in France to playing for Blackburn Rovers' reserves at such footballing hotbeds as Hednesford and Newcastle-under-Lyme. Lesser characters might have felt like throwing in the towel. Flowers just wanted to twirl his in triumph again.

Towel-twirling - the rapid rotation of said item around the head after a match - is Flowers' sole concession to the eccentricity that makes goalkeepers a breed apart. Since he learned his trade under that most notorious of non-conformist custodians, John Burridge, perhaps his new colleagues at Leicester City should count their blessings. It is not any old towel, however, but one emblazoned with the Union Jack. Nor is it routinely thrust into the air; this is a ritual reserved for victories.

Little was seen of the red, white and blue talisman last season. Blackburn slid out of the Premiership just four years after taking the championship, while Flowers did not start a single match once Brian Kidd replaced Roy Hodgson as manager in November. During the close season, Kidd accepted both his transfer request and the pounds 1.1m which Martin O'Neill offered for the 32-year-old Midlander on Leicester's behalf.

Already it looks like one of the snips of the year. The speed with which Flowers has settled into Kasey Keller's shoes has stirred memories among Leicester followers of the way Gordon Banks and Peter Shilton once commanded Filbert Street's penalty areas. After an outstanding display against Chelsea last Saturday in front of Kevin Keegan's goalkeeping coach, Ray Clemence, he may even return to the England fold for next month's crucial Euro 2000 qualifiers.

At the end, despite conceding a costly own goal by Frank Sinclair in stoppage time for the second week running, the born-again keeper saluted the crowd and hugged friends and foes alike. "I always do that," he said. "Enjoying it, whatever the result, and having a rapport with the fans are two of the many things I learned from Budgie [Burridge], but to be honest I was just thrilled to have played in such a great game.

"After my last six months at Blackburn, playing for Leicester has brought home to me how badly I missed the buzz and the atmosphere of the Premiership. The only reason I asked to leave was because I wasn't playing, not because they weren't winning or because they got relegated.

"It was soul-destroying to work hard all week for no end-product. I love the big build-up to a match, yet apart from coming on as substitute twice I was stuck on the bench or playing in the Pontins League against Birmingham at Hednesford and Stoke at Newcastle Town."

Kidd made it plain that he preferred John Filan between the posts. "I didn't agree with him and he told me: `Fine, I don't expect you to' and agreed when I said I ought to be playing first-team football," said Flowers. "Hence my departure! But I don't want to criticise Kiddo or anyone at Blackburn because I had a fantastic time there. I can't let six bad months sour six great years."

That said, Flowers was sad to see so much good work "frittered away". He felt they had not built on a position of strength after winning the title, instead allowing a steady stream of high-quality players to leave. He also sensed that something magical was lost with the break-up of the partnership between Kenny Dalglish and Ray Harford.

"They complemented each other brilliantly. When they were together we thought we could go anywhere and win. It was devastating when Kenny left. He was the reason I went there rather than Liverpool. When he was trying to buy me from Southampton he made me feel as if I was the one person in the world he wanted to sign. It wasn't just his persistence or the fact that he was a World XI player, a legend who'd done everything, but his aura."

O'Neill's enthusiasm in pursuing Flowers reminded him of Dalglish. "He was so positive about everything, it bowled me over. It was the same when I came to Leicester and met John Robertson and Steve Walford [assistant manager and coach respectively]. It's a bit of a throwback club in that respect. There's a tight-knit, community feel about the place which makes you feel at home."

Leicester's three matches so far have vindicated his belief that there was a leavening of class to go with the team spirit and work ethic. But for Sinclair's bizarre double they would have been going to West Ham on Saturday as joint leaders, although Flowers argues that the former Chelsea defender has probably been their best player to date.

Like his "role model", Burridge, who is now coaching in the Middle East, Flowers aims to play until he is 40. "My style is totally different to Budgie's because I'm a different shape and a different person. But when we were at Wolves together and again at Southampton he always put in 100 per cent, which is what I try to do.

"People said he was an oddball, and I do remember him listening to a shrink on his headset before games and eating little tubs of rice with a plastic fork. But he'd say to me: `I'll tell you what's odd: going to nightclubs until three in the morning, blowing a grand at the bookies, smoking 60 a day'. I'm no saint but I'm not a night owl. I like to be in bed by 10 o'clock." Which may be why Flowers' other little idiosyncrasy, leaving spoof messages on Alan Shearer's answer-phone, is a thing of the past. The England captain, he explained, tended to retaliate at 4am.

But the infamous towel lives on, to one fan's dismay. "I've had this letter," laughed Flowers, "which said: `You must be a right tramp. You've had that stinking old rag about eight years. Don't you ever wash it?' Sometimes I think: `That's my lucky towel', but if I'm crap it's the towel's fault."