Fowler full of emotion on return to his first love

Liverpool's new signing shows his admiration for the Anfield transformation under Rafael Benitez. Andy Hunter reports
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The Independent Football

Rare indeed is the Premiership footballer who thanks the media for intruding upon his life throughout the course of a joyous weekend but as he sat alongside Rafael Benitez in Liverpool's sparkling trophy room yesterday, Robbie Fowler had an awful lot to be thankful for.

Deysbrook Lane, in the Liverpool district of West Derby, has been littered with builders' vans, land cruisers and any vehicle that can offer a clear view over the wall of Liverpool's training ground since Saturday morning, when a 30-year-old seasoned professional and former England international nervously reported back for work following a four-year sabbatical in Yorkshire and Manchester. Those who have stretched their disbelieving faces above the concrete slabs that surround Melwood have been acknowledged with waves and clench-fisted salutes from the club's new signing and provide a mere sample of the emotional reaction that will greet the striker when he reappears in the red of Liverpool against Birmingham City at Anfield tomorrow.

"I half expected a bit of publicity but the amount of coverage I've had in the papers, on the radio and the television has been magnificent and I am very grateful for it," he said, providing further proof that Premiership footballers are born as well as manufactured.

Fowler has embraced a level of publicity that he took for granted during his early, astonishing years as a goalscoring phenomenon for the unspoken reason that he must have feared he would never encounter its glare again. Only Fowler could have sparked such a euphoric reaction to a free transfer at Liverpool, but only Liverpool could have sparked the same exhilaration in Fowler. Though Benitez, the club's manager, and their chief executive, Rick Parry, have been at pains to stress that the decision to sign the former Manchester City forward was taken for purely football motives, there is little dispute that Fowler needed the chance to rekindle former glories more than the reigning European champions.

His fitness levels and first-team starts have been restricted for too many years, long before he left Anfield for Elland Road in December 2001, and this season he had been limited to only five appearances for Stuart Pearce's team by a serious back problem. Yet while he quietly insists he is edging back towards full fitness, the man who was elevated from "Toxteth Terror" to "God" during his first spell at Liverpool bristles with indignation at the suggestion that his appetite for the game has diminished since being forced out of the club by Gérard Houllier.

"I've heard a lot of rumours about me packing in at the end of this season but if I'm honest, the thought has never entered my head," Fowler said. "I am 30 and I think I have another five years left in me, hopefully at this level. I played regularly last season and was doing very well under Stuart Pearce, there were even whispers of England again, but I was injured from the start of this season and did not get back in the side and all of a sudden the whispers are about how I've lost the hunger and I don't want it any more. Managers always say they want hungry players at their clubs and I can honestly say I am hungrier now than I have ever been. It upsets me when people think I'm not. This is what I love. I haven't got a clue what I'm going to do when I finish because I have thrown all of my energies into football. I've got six months here but if I do well enough hopefully I will get another contract. It is solely down to me."

Aside from the emotional attachment to Liverpool, and it was almost impossible for Fowler to detach himself from that aspect of the transfer yesterday, the striker believes belonging to a club with a Champions' League trophy and improving Premiership profile will sharpen the form he had begun to display at City in recent weeks. "If you're going to any top club then it can only benefit you as a player," he said. "It gives you a buzz and you should respond to it. There is added pressure on me but I feel coming back to my first love can only help. I did reasonably well the last time I was here and if I can get a third of the goals I got then it will be good for everyone."

While most of the Liverpool squad were preparing for last Sunday's FA Cup victory over Portsmouth, Fowler had little time to reacquaint himself with his old and now new team-mates, yet has already noted a marked difference from the club he left in acrimonious circumstances. He said: "I've only trained three times but the training is a lot sharper than what I was used to. The ball is zipped about a lot quicker than what I have been used to before and you can see the professionalism in the club. No disrespect to the players and the staff who were here four years ago but the club has improved a lot."

The striker admits he has been impressed with the intensity of Benitez's passion for football, for Liverpool and, above all, for winning, and believes no one at Manchester City will begrudge him a move to the club he never wanted to leave. Nor does he begrudge Djibril Cissé the No 9 shirt he once wore with such distinction.

Liverpool's new No 11 stated: "The number on the back of my shirt means nothing to me. It is the badge on the front that counts."

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