Fowler a symbol of Leeds' intent

The reborn striker: Anfield legend checks in to home of fine-tuning as he seeks to consolidate his England place
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The Independent Online

A rare melancholy permeates Merseyside this weekend. A legend has passed on and a favourite son has moved on. We heard about George Harrison's death on Friday morning, en route to Leeds' training ground at Thorp Arch to witness the introduction of their new signing, Robbie Fowler. Though the two events are hardly comparable – the premature death of another member of The Beatles is an event that has been mourned across the world; the other concerns a Liverpudlian who has merely been enticed away by rivals across the Pennines – there are many, particularly those not of an age to have fully appreciated the seismic impact of the world's best-known group in their pomp, to whom the loss of the player with the epithet "god" has undoubtedly been as profound.

As you listened to the 26-year-old England striker, you felt that, for him, too, it would require time before the umbilical cord between him and his home city was severed, despite the fact that sheer pragmatism told him the time was right to depart. Such has been the rush to fit him into his Leeds No 27 shirt that he has yet to empty his locker at Liverpool's Mellwood training ground. "I've left behind everything," he said. "I've got new boots here, but I'll have to go back and pick up my old ones. I've got pictures in my locker, too, of me in Liverpool kit. But then, perhaps I'd better leave them!"

A deal might have been completed last Saturday evening. The Leeds chairman, Peter Ridsdale, had come to what he believed was a satisfactory agreement with the Liverpool chief executive, Rick Parry. But Leeds' manager, David O'Leary, was not satisfied with the structure of the deal, and negotiations continued until Wednesday before a £11m move was finalised. "It will be very emotional to go back," said Fowler. "I know so many people there. Not just the players, but every-one, the gatemen and tea ladies. I'm just sorry the way that things panned out for me at the end in my last game."

He started that against Sunderland on Sunday, but was substituted at half-time. "I regret that I didn't get a chance to say goodbye to the fans, who were absolutely fantastic to me from day one. Being a local lad, they saw me as someone from the terraces who'd made good."

He added: "There are very mixed emotions. I'm very sad because I'd been at Liverpool for 15 years and enjoyed every minute, but it was obvious to everyone that I did need a change. I was not playing as well as I would have liked. I want to be part of a great footballing side and I feel I can improve here. Hopefully, people will see the Robbie Fowler that people keep talking about."

Fowler denied that he had stalled on a new contract – his old one had 18 months to run – at Anfield, insisting: "There was nothing on the table to sign." He continued: "I was happy at Liverpool. I never had any problems with the staff, although obviously Phil Thompson and myself did have a fall-out at the start of the season but that was resolved. I've got no animosity with anyone."

O'Leary first made an offer for him two years ago. Initially, he wanted the man who scored 171 goals in 330 senior appearances for Liverpool as a replacement for Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink. Finally, Fowler arrives by recommendation, from a fellow England man, Rio Ferdinand, and a former Anfield defender, Dominic Matteo. He joins one of the game's best reconditioning units, where engines which have not quite been firing at their optimum level are fine-tuned.

O'Leary, who with his team of mechanics, Brian Kidd and Eddie Gray, has enhanced the performance levels of both Ferdinand and Matteo, explained what prompted the purchase: "I just think the fella's a pure, natural goalscorer. But considering the standards he's set, we haven't exactly seen that over the last 18 months. He's had sporadic bursts. What I want to do is to get him back to how he was before. Then we'll have a fantastic player."

The team spirit within the Leeds training ground is renowned, and it emanates from the manager down. "I'm very much on top of people," said O'Leary. "I'm very much in their faces all the time. As Rio has found, I'm a manager who's done nothing but is hungry to do something."

He added: "When I came here on a free from Arsenal I was glad to get out after 20 years of Highbury. Robbie's been at Liverpool for 15 years, a great club, but he knew everything about it, the car could probably drive itself there every day. Maybe, like me, Robbie needs a new challenge. But he'll find there are big demands put on the players."

Fowler arrives having recovered from a serious knee injury which denied him his chance in France '98, and with a seriously tarnished reputation. Mock-cocaine sniffing of the goal-line after scoring and homophobic gestures at Chelsea's Graeme Le Saux are just part of it. With that considered, the fee appears remarkably generous.

"Maybe they know something I don't," conceded O'Leary, with a hint of a smile. "Liverpool may be proved right to let him go, but I don't think it's a gamble. I've got to raise the quality. I'm trying to bang Leeds into a top-three club, year in, year out. Robbie Fowler adds to that."

It leaves Leeds with five top-class strikers and makes an emphatic statement to the remainder of the Premiership of Leeds' intent. "There is no conscious desire to do that," said Ridsdale. "But if it has that effect I'm delighted. If you look at our team today, we've got some quality players that perhaps we wouldn't have been able to attract five years ago. I must stress that Liverpool did not sell him cheaply, or easily. I have spent every day of the last week trying to agree a fee."

From Fowler's point of view, the four- and-a-half year contract agreement with Leeds, worth a reported £35,000 a week, is the logical conclusion of long-term dissatisfaction with Liverpool's selection policy and his concerns that it could be to the detriment of his England career. "As a forward, if you don't play games your confidence goes," said Fowler. "I was playing one in four games and that's not ideal, is it?"

As for the possible effect on his England opportunities of remaining at Anfield, he added: "I missed the last World Cup through injury and I really want to be involved in this one. It's always going to be hard, because there's so many good strikers in England and three quality ones at Liverpool. It's hard for an England manager to take three forwards out of one club. I may not have been left out of the squad for that reason, but I think I've definitely got a better chance of going to the World Cup now."

Today, he is likely to start his new career at Fulham, against whom he made his debut, in a League Cup tie in October 1993 at Craven Cottage. That ended in a 3-1 victory for Liverpool. "So a bit of the same wouldn't go amiss," he said. "But the second game against them seems to be what I was remembered for most, when I scored five goals."

Fulham have been warned, and the rest of the Premiership. You suspect that, ultimately, it will be Leeds' gain and Liverpool's loss. In every sense. As George Harrison might have said: "Here comes the son."

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