James Lawton: 'I wish I was Peter Pan'. Robbie Fowler's passion for football Down Under burns as brightly as in his glory days
Saturday 27 November 2010
There is a bigger show in town, a much bigger one, but Robbie Fowler, the former star of Liverpool and England and one of the most naturally gifted players of modern football, is untroubled by his loss of a certain status.
It helps immensely that he retains the one he values most, the one that says he still earns his living out on the football field.
As it happens, he has has a ticket for the Ashes Test match here at The Gabba and will happily join a crowd roughly eight times the size of the one that has just witnessed his latest appearance for Perth Glory in the infant A-league.
The most important thing, he tells you as he sits in the terracing of the now-empty Suncorp Stadium, is that at 35 his professional services are still required and so he can remind himself and the fans who seek his autograph that he could once enrapture crowds twice the size of the one gathering to see Pietersen and Ponting.
Playing it so well, despite his advanced age, that he might just do it for another season down here, wife and children permitting back in Liverpool, rather than take up immediately a coaching job with MK Dons offered by the manager and a friend and former team-mate, Karl Robinson.
None of it is about the money because, for all his old stereotype "scally" image, he did get around to thinking about the future and invested wisely. He also mellowed, he says, with a puckish smile. No, the issue is a man's need to do something he knows, with every growing certainty the older he gets, will always be the kernel of his life.
There is a fervour in Fowler's passion so startling that it seems to fill the cavern of the stadium and is broken only when he is reminded, gently, that a team bus is waiting and he is still in his playing kit after the second-half stint that saw him score a penalty, help make a goal and reveal a flash or two of class that separated him utterly from anyone else around.
It was a losing cause, a 3-2 defeat to the soaraway Brisbane Roar, but he says: "I loved every second of it. I love it when I see that I can still play this game and still be a part of it, still say this is what I do, this is what I am – a footballer, nothing else, just a footballer."
The more he speaks the more you speculate on the value that might come to every Premier League manager from Sir Alex Ferguson to Ian Holloway, the men in charge of the separate ends of big-time wage budgets, if they were to pin up in their dressing rooms the following words placed above the signature of Robbie Fowler, a still-practising professional of the football parish.
"I wish I was Peter Pan and I could play for ever. I wish I was starting again because it's a great life. It's the only thing I have ever done. It's the only thing I ever wanted to do. It's the only thing I ever wanted to be part of. The day I do retire will be a very sad one. I hate thinking about it.
"You get some players who reach a certain age and they just want to pack it in. I say, 'Why wouldn't you want to play for as long as you could, with any club who wanted you?' If I wasn't getting paid I would be doing it anyway. I get paid for doing something I love and can there be anything better in the world?
"I loved playing tonight, even though we were obviously up against it. It seems more precious now and I just wished I had appreciated it more when I was younger.
"If I could give advice to a kid just starting out I would say, 'Enjoy it while you can, it doesn't last for ever'. It seems like yesterday when I was starting off – the years have just flown by. I know it will not be long now.
"There is so much money in the game now, people don't think they have to play in the lower leagues any more, and they don't for financial reasons, but I would play in League One or Two without a doubt. It's not just playing the game but being around the people and doing the day-to-day things. Most of all I love match day.
"Some people don't want to go down to lower leagues because they just lose interest. I don't understand this because what are you doing to do? There are only so many games of golf you can play.
"I feel very sorry for Gazza because, apart from any other issues, he seems lost and yet I know how much he loved to play football. One problem has been that he has had friends around who weren't friends.
"Friends would get a grip on you and tell you to behave yourself, that you shouldn't be doing this or that. No one seems to have done that for him when his problems were developing, and maybe because it just suited some people at the time to be around him, to be seen around him, when he was a centre of attention.
"I've had a lot of criticism thrown at me in my time, and maybe I did a few things wrong, but family is so important – a family puts you right, looks after you, keeps your feet on the ground and I've been lucky with this. Maybe with all the money around, Premier League clubs should get a grip on some of the players.
"You see kids coming into training grounds in brand-new, very expensive cars and you do wonder how they keep their focus on the game. Times change, I know. I was in the Liverpool first team with an A-reg beige Escort with a brown interior. I can still remember the number plate. You would never catch a kid turning up for his Liverpool debut now in an old car.
"I made my debut against Fulham in the League Cup, scored one, set up two. My First Division debut was at Chelsea. We lost 1-0, Neil Shipperley scored the goal, but I played well, I felt good. People asked how I was able to take up such good positions when I was so young but maybe I was lucky in that it was something I just knew while other people didn't. Some people just know football, others never will. Gazza was a genius. His positional sense, his understanding of the game, was unbelievable.
"I think if you sat down and spoke to most people and asked them if they would have done things differently if they had their time over most of them would say yes. You do silly things when you are young and you have to learn from them. You start off and everything's so easy and that is especially true now.
"Today everything is laid on a plate. Everything is done for you and so you probably don't appreciate it. It's just there. I was a YTS kid and we had to clean toilets and baths and sinks. Now they are straight into an environment where everything is done for them. All they have to do is turn up and play."
Sooner or later, hopefully later, he will get into coaching and learn about the game from another perspective, maybe at the MK Dons where his mate Karl can teach him things about the game you don't always grasp when you are playing.
Maybe he can go to coaching courses and get some badges. It's not what he has always had in mind but he knows there is one thing that would certainly be worse. It would be being cut off from football, the only life he ever wanted to know and which here in the big stadium, where England's rugby union team beat Wales on their way to triumph in the 2003 World Cup, has come alive for him again earlier this night.
When he leaves he is advised to keep knocking in the goals. "What else would I do?" he says with a nod and a shrug. One day Robbie Fowler may kick the football habit. It won't, however, be any time soon.
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