Football: Reds rich from last chance saloon: Fowler finds right finish

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Liverpool. . . . . .2

Oldham Athletic. . .1

AS anxiety and anger swept over Anfield's sunlit stands like a shadow, two goals in the final 160 seconds shattered Oldham and ended the worst drought in Liverpool's history in the League.

The danger is that this victory, after what must rank as one of the scrappiest home performances since pre-Shankly days, might trick Liverpool into believing that Black September is about to metamorphose into Red October. The truth is that on a bad-luck scale of one to 10, Oldham registered 11, although a better side would have been out of sight before Robbie Fowler broke a spell which had lasted 9hr 49min.

Graeme Souness claimed he was not deceived: 'We didn't play any football today,' he conceded. The Liverpool manager then proceeded to offer familiar, if highly topical, mitigation. He had been unable to prepare properly for the match, he said, because seven of his squad were away on international duty. That was 'not the only reason' for their display, but it was 'a contributory factor'.

The 32,661 who constituted Liverpool's lowest Premiership gathering, many of whom voted with their feet before the frenzied finale, may be excused for wondering how one player in a red shirt was deemed worthy of international status, let alone seven.

The fatigue factor cited by Alex Ferguson after last month's World Cup qualifiers was not Liverpool's problem; only two of the midweek absentees who faced Oldham, Ian Rush and Jamie Redknapp, actually played for their countries. And after all it was Fowler, back from a potentially sapping first trip with England's Under-21s, who proved the saviour.

The 18-year-old from Toxteth had scant competition for the hosts' man-of-the-match award, except perhaps from Mark Wright. In midfield, Liverpool's chronic lack of passing ability was exposed by Paul Bernard, a young Scot who had himself flown in from Italy at 4am on Thursday. They also controlled the ball as if it were a greasy balloon, and came off worse in virtually every 50-50 challenge.

Indeed, Oldham would have been savouring a second League win this season had Darren Beckford shown either composure or ruthlessness with one first-half shot and a lob soon after he had opened the scoring. In contrast, Fowler confirmed that he shares with Rush, the striking partner he admits having 'hated' as an adolescent Evertonian, an ability to drift undetected into scoring positions.

Whether he turns out to be the new Rush or merely the new Paul Walsh, Fowler's first Premiership goal, following on from the five he plundered against Fulham in the Coca-Cola Cup, means he has made an auspicious start. Which was more than could be said of Liverpool, who had to resort to the physical finish once Beckford had put Oldham ahead.

With Neil Ruddock marauding up front it was, as Joe Royle damningly observed, 'a bit route one', but it paid off. No sooner had Fowler run in the makeshift centre- forward's flick-on than Andy Barlow diverted Ruddock's miscued shot past his own keeper - and all in front of a disbelieving Kop.

Goals: Beckford (73) 0-1; Fowler (88) 1-1; Barlow og (90) 2-1.

Liverpool (4-4-2): Grobbelaar; R Jones, Wright, Ruddock, Dicks (Walters, 61); Redknapp, Clough, Stewart, Hutchison (Nicol, h-t); Fowler, Rush. Substitute not used: James (gk).

Oldham Athletic (3-5-2): Gerrard; Fleming, Redmond, Barlow; Halle, Milligan, Bernard, Henry, Holden; Beckford, Sharp. Substitutes not used: Ritchie, Palmer, Key (gk).

Referee: A Wilkie (Chester-le-Street).