Football: The natural born thriller

Robbie Fowler, Liverpool's predator, is ready to bridge a new divide and widen his free-scoring net against the Croats; Ian Ridley believes the young England striker is no rookie riding his luck
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The Independent Online
He turned 21 a fortnight ago, has just moved into a new five- bedroom house, drives a BMW and was recently voted Young Player of the Year. In addition, he has scored 36 goals this season and on Wednesday, a few weeks ahead of an FA Cup final appearance, will make his first start for England. Robbie Fowler: don't you just hate him?

Calm down, calm down, in Liverpool. Only joking. All envy aside, Fowler's presence against Croatia, even if it is courtesy of injuries to Alan Shearer and Les Ferdinand, will be cause for celebration - of one of the most audacious and precocious natural talents to emerge in the English game since Jimmy Greaves in the late 1950s.

This season is the third in which Fowler has consistently scored goals, 18 in his debut season being followed last year by 31 in all competitions. Clearly this is no rookie riding his luck. And beyond the statistics is the style, illustrated in that breathtaking goal against Aston Villa. After the instant turn past Steve Staunton, the powerful shot with a left foot to have insurance agents gleefully contemplating premiums may have faded past Mark Bosnich into the top corner but refuses to do so from the memory.

Now we will see if Fowler can vault the divide of class and mentality that separates club from international football, one which has proved beyond so many. The evidence of his previous progressions is encouraging, however. Within five matches of his Liverpool debut as an 18-year-old he was scoring a hat-trick. The previous summer he had been outstandingly prolific as England's youth team won the European Championship and he has since taken in his stride international B team - scoring on his debut - and under-21 football.

Fowler himself is somewhat casual about it all. "I've scored goals since I was little," he said last week. "I don't know, it just came to me." Perhaps like those young golfers with willowy swings who send the ball miles, he hasn't yet discovered how difficult the game really is. Here's hoping he never does.

He certainly has the fearlessness and confidence of youth, claiming never to have felt nervous before any match. And of his substitute's appearance for England against Bulgaria last month, he said: "Fourteen minutes is not a lot to prove what you can do but I felt I did OK on the ball and I didn't feel out of place."

The path to Wednesday's natural conclusion to the first flush of his career has not always run smoothly. "He had some indifferent games in the Under-21s," Terry Venables, the England coach, noted. They included a sending off against Austria. And the Liverpool manager Roy Evans dropped him at the beginning of this season.

"I can understand it when he says I needed a kick up the backside," Fowler said. "In pre- season he said I wasn't sharp and I was probably taking my place for granted. Being out of the side was the kick I needed and I think I am a better player for it."

There was, too, some growing up to be done in public; the wiry Toxteth scally had to endure, for example, the humiliation of a cuff from Neil Ruddock after prankishly and unwisely cutting up a pair of the solid defender's shoes. "He's matured in the last year," Venables said. "It was hit or miss but he looks serious about his game."

The England coach points out two areas of development in Fowler's game. The Villa goal, says Venables, showed how he has learnt to get into a good position early and await a pass when static, rather than being on the move and consequently miscontrolling. Fowler also grows more aware of when to hold back a run, leaving his marker to carry on alone into the six-yard area while he waits for the cut-back.

The comparison with Greaves may be more to do with initial impact - 124 goals in 157 games for Chelsea between the ages of 17 and 21; England debut, sealed with a goal, at 19 - rather than style. "Jimmy used to dribble straight through the middle and pass the ball into the net, Robbie tends to beat people in short areas and get a shot in," Venables said. He believes Fowler to be in advance of Gary Lineker, a late but great developer.

"I never saw them play but from what other people tell me they were really good players," Fowler said. "So to be mentioned in the same breath as them is really a good honour isn't it?" Ironically an Evertonian, Fowler's role model was actually Graeme Sharp.

Latterly, Shearer has been a target, though they appear to differ in one way. "I once went six games without scoring and that was horrible, the worst feeling in the world," Fowler said. Shearer says his barren 10 international games have not bothered him. As long as the team is winning, he insists, his own tally does not matter. Or perhaps we should take that with a pillar of salt after he delayed last week his groin operation to try, successfully and remarkably, to become the first player post-war to score 30 league goals in three consecutive seasons.

While most of the attention naturally focuses on the natural and who might partner him up front - surely the in-possession and in-form Teddy Sheringham playing just behind with Stan Collymore coming off the bench - overcoming defensive disarray caused by a litany of injuries is likely to occupy Venables's thoughts more pressingly.

It may well be that another Liverpool player in Mark Wright plays his first game for four years with experience needed amid the youth of Gary Neville - dropped by Manchester United last week - Sol Campbell or Ugo Ehiogu. But there is, not surprisingly, a threadbare look whatever the permutation.

Indeed, it could mirror the makeshift back four of England's only defeat under Venables, against Brazil last summer, and Croatia can be expected to provide the stiffest test since then.

As fierce accompaniment to the talents of such as Davor Suker - 17 goals in 17 internationals - Alen Boksic, Robert Prosinecki and Zvonimir Boban is a pride in donning the distinctive red gingham shirts of their war- scarred country which has been evident in both competitive and friendly matches.

Venables believes them to be among the favourites for Euro 96 and expects they will indeed be "busting a gut" on Wednesday. As response, we savour the prospect of Robbie Fowler busting a net.