Football: Second coming of hit-man Fowler

Guy Hodgson says a reborn striker can help deflect defensive brickbats
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The Independent Online
IT IS fortunate that football in Britain does not departmentalise coaches like they do in the American counterpart, otherwise the Liverpool defensive coach would long since have gone beyond considering throwing himself in the Mersey. The man in charge of the attack, though, might be smiling.

Liverpool's shambolic defending in their third-round first leg against Celta Vigo - I understand several centres of academia have consulted solicitors after Gerard Houllier referred to "schoolboy errors" - has probably finished their interest in the Uefa Cup but the 3-1 defeat helped scotch at least one myth, that Michael Owen and Robbie Fowler cannot play together.

That had seemed the case against Aston Villa when Fowler got a hat-trick but the pairing have prospered before when the going has been good; against Celta the reverse was true. Neither had much possession but when they did get it a burgeoning partnership was apparent.

Aware of the problems behind them they took it in turns to supplement the midfield, tackling and chasing. Against Villa it was Fowler who got the chances, in Spain it was Owen, but on both occasions his partner had laboured diligently for the other to prosper.

Why the partnership has suddenly clicked is down to several factors, not least Fowler's return to fitness after a seven-month lay-off, but there were also several mental barriers to overcome. On Owen's side it was a near reverential attitude to the man alongside him. The 18-year- old appears to have no fears but even he would have found it hard suddenly to supplant someone who has been a hero. At the very least he would have been embarrassed.

The thoughts circulating between Fowler's ears are more complex. For a start no footballer can return after such a long spell and have no doubts. Touch, acceleration and, most of all, confidence are the last things to reappear, the very attributes a striker requires most, and Fowler had to regather them all while burdened by comparison. Not only with Owen but with himself.

Owen's astronomic rise makes it easy to forget that before the prodigy arrived, Fowler was regarded as the best young striker in England. Immature off the field possibly, but on it he was peerless and it should not be overlooked that at 23 he has scored 138 times in 231 matches, four goals more incidentally than his colleague Karlheinz Riedle who is 10 years older and was regarded for part of his career as a world-class striker.

Even this season, a recuperative one in which he has been dropped or rather rested, he has managed nine goals from 12 games. When you look at that record you can see why the England coach Glenn Hoddle described Owen, whose talents give him a larger canvas to fill, as something different from an out-and-out striker. Fowler is that.

Indeed Houllier has been trying to broaden Fowler's game - make him more like Owen if you like - and against Villa and Celta the Liverpool manager was rewarded with a more rounded performance. "For the first time, Robbie was dropping off, taking part in the build-up," he said, almost as delighted with that as his hat-trick. "He was strong, he shielded the ball well and was good in the air.

"Because of his injury we expected his form to dip sometimes, then come back. What we have had to do is rebuild his confidence by encouraging him, trusting him and being patient. I have told him he has to be aware strikers now have to be athletes as well as goalscorers."

Fowler would not be human if he had not been dismayed by how soon he was overshadowed and it must have galled him that when doubts arose he was the one consigned to the bench. The evidence suggests that is unlikely to happen again - "He went through a mental barrier against Aston Villa," Houllier said, "he knows he can do it again" - and a prospering relationship with Owen will have important repercussions for country as well as club. For Liverpool one problem looks to be solved. As for the defence...