Until the arrival of Sven Goran Eriksson, English football was well on its way to the serious undermining, if not the destruction, of its most vital talent.
Wherever he turned, Michael Owen was being told he was, variously, burned-out, under-developed technically, that his first touch was critically poor, and that even workaday defenders had learned how to deal with his one great asset: searing speed.
Now, with his timely substitution of Robbie Fowler for Emile Heskey at St James' Park, Eriksson may be on his way to preventing a similar travesty of judgement at the highest levels of the game.
Fowler's goal, which ensured that England preserved their favourite's chance to qualify directly to next year's World Cup finals, was exquisite. It was a goal which, as one old pro said, Jimmy Greaves would have been happy to score.
It showed a range of natural, easy talent unique to Fowler in the English game. It came from nowhere but the pool of his own invention. He moved easily through the Albanian defence with the ball at his feet and when the moment of striking came he effortlessly employed his less-favoured right foot to chip the ball over the goalkeeper. A player not so secure in his skill might have blasted the shot and been happy enough to be the victim of a reflex save. Fowler eschewed such risk. He took full responsibility for the success or the failure of the moment. It was indeed the mark of a Greaves or a Denis Law.
It was also, perhaps, a seminal moment in Fowler's strangely unfulfilled career. He may ask himself, more forcefully than ever before, why at the prime of his career must he operate on a rotation system which currently appears to place him behind Heskey, a man he so comfortably eclipsed at St James' Park. Heskey has of course done well for Liverpool and his patron, the manager Gérard Houllier, but recently on the international field Fowler has utterly surpassed his Anfield team-mate. In Athens against Greece his failure to score did nothing to dim the brilliance of his performance. He was by some distance the man of the match. But his chances of building on this clear evidence, and prove that he could indeed achieve a working liaison with Owen at international level, were sharply reduced by his troubles at Anfield coming into this new season.
In his emotionally charged dispute with Houllier's assistant Phil Thompson, Fowler was plainly expressing the depths of his frustration. The manager, who demanded that Fowler publicly came to heel, at one point accused the player of acting like someone who "wanted away". The truth was rather more basic. Fowler simply wanted to play, to express himself in that place where he can be so superbly articulate, the field of action. Players touched with greatness do. It is like breathing.
The artistry of Fowler's strike against Albania made that desire looked more than ever a call not for preferment through rebellion and pique but professional justice.
Certainly it was interesting to see the expression on Eriksson's face when Fowler's shot glided beyond the goalkeeper Fotaq Strakosha. Partly it spoke of his relief that England would indeed move to the top of the qualifying group and harden their chances of direct entry to the World Cup. But maybe also there was the roll of a connoisseur's lips at the taste of a fine wine. A man so deeply familiar with the refinements of the Italian game, the balance of iron-trap defence and the skills required to break it, could only have been thrilled by such an example of high talent.
When Eriksson will shortly be obliged to compete with defences of the calibre of the world champions France, Italy and Argentina, it is inconceivable that he would deny himself a resource as subtle as Fowler. Heskey's leaden performance can only have re-inforced the point.
The hope must be that Eriksson is indeed at the start of another major reclamation job. In Munich the other night he refused to be drawn on his feelings about Owen's situation at the start of this year. He would probably more willingly submit to canal dentistry without anaesthetic than comment on Owen's treatment at the hands of Kevin Keegan, when the player was substituted relentlessly in Euro 2000 and stood down for Andy Cole in the prestige friendly in Paris – or Houllier's own declaration that Owen, long after his explosive impact on the World Cup of 1998, must "prove himself a man for England". But Eriksson's action was far more persuasive than words. He invested absolute faith in Owen's instinct to score goals, and in this he was only being consistent. As coach of Lazio, he had been prepared to pay big money for the striker.
For Fowler the imperative is regular football and permanent exposure. It is, as Owen has proved so stunningly ever since Eriksson gave him the reassuring nod earlier this year, the lifeblood of a striker.
The confidence of such men is generally fragile. It feeds on the explosive moments of triumph. It dwindles in periods of inactivity. Malcolm Allison, who was running a bar in Tin Pan Alley at the time, recalls the nervousness of Greaves before he embarked on his brief and unsatisfying stint in Italy. "No-one could score goals like Jimmy," says Allison, "but he needed re-assurance. His stomach was tied in knots before he went to Italy. It is the way of strikers, and football men shouldn't need to be told this. Fowler? He's a huge talent." Can it work in partnership with Owen? It is not a natural partnership. Their talents are different but not necessarily complementary. This is inevitable in such individualistic talent. It may also be that it would suit Owen to have the big, potentially disruptive Heskey pounding at a defence rather than the sleek and teasing Fowler. But this possibility is surely dwarfed by the fact that England have two supreme operators in the art of scoring goals. One is Michael Owen. The other is Robbie Fowler. It is a one-two combination which, the law of averages says, gives England their highest potential to score goals.
Owen has comprehensively destroyed the challenge of all rivals. Fowler, given a decent run, would have to be backed heavily against the threat of Heskey, Cole and Kevin Phillips. It is a matter of class. Pure class.
Towards the end of last season Owen scored a superb hat-trick at Anfield to destroy Newcastle. It was one of the early eruptions in a tide of astonishing potency. The best of his goals was beautifully set up by a second-half substitute, who saw that Owen was perfectly positioned to move beyond the last Newcastle defender and delivered an exquisite ball into his path. The Newcastle defender was Nikos Dabizas, stalwart of the Greek defence. The substitute was Robbie Fowler. In the vital last qualifying game at Old Trafford next month, the Greeks face Owen again. After their experience in Athens, they would no doubt prefer not to see him in the company of Fowler.
Eriksson will no doubt consider the Greek foreboding. He will do it, you have to believe, in the knowledge that he has at his disposal not one but two great strikers. The story of Robbie Fowler is one of waste. It is high time that it was re-written.Reuse content