Fowler sees light on the dark road to recovery

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The Independent Football

Liverpool's injury-beset striker can sustain his goalscoring rehabilitation at Elland Road today.

Liverpool's injury-beset striker can sustain his goalscoring rehabilitation at Elland Road today.

The new century has not been kind to the Spice Boys. Jason McAteer has disappeared from view, Jamie Redknapp is recovering from a debilitating knee injury, Steve McManaman is now a fringe player at Real Madrid, while Paul Ince has the task of captaining Middlesbrough, adrift and rudderless on an ocean of mis-spent money. Oh, for those white Armani suits of long ago.

Only Robbie Fowler will be involved in a Premiership match today, as Liverpool face a morning engagement with Leeds United at Elland Road, and it is a game the striker will approach with confidence since, on Wednesday, the man regarded by many observers as the most natural striker in England managed something he had not done for almost 11 months: he scored a goal.

When he turned and drove low past the Chelsea goalkeeper, Ed de Goey, Gérard Houllier, not usually the most demonstrative of men, punched the air with special pleasure. Ever since Fowler returned to the Liverpool side following his latest ankle injury, sustained in a pre-season friendly with Glentoran, and began missing chances by the bucket-load, Houllier had argued that his striker "needed to be indulged".

It was appropriate that vindication should have come in the League Cup, a competition in which seven years ago an 18-year-old from Toxteth marked his debut with a goal against Fulham and topped it by scoring five times in the return leg.

"Everyone knows how long and how deeply I have been backing the boy and, even if he had not scored for us, I would still have been pleased because it was his best performance by far since his recovery," the Liverpool manager said.

Ian Rush, writing in the Liverpool Echo, said he did not expect to see Fowler at his best until Christmas. "There is no doubt he is not fully fit. You almost have to play on auto-pilot when coming back from such a long injury," he said.

Houllier thought Rush was being optimistic. "There will be ups and downs but in terms of consistency he will find his real level in one or two months and be back to his true form in January or February.

"I don't think he is there yet but every day he shows a little bit more. For a long time, while the pace and intensity of the game have been increasing, Robbie has been doing nothing."

To his intense frustration, Fowler has been doing nothing for longer than he cares to remember. You can split his career into two - before and after the collision with Thomas Myhre in the Everton goal in February 1998 that wrecked his knee ligaments, and the two stuttering, stifling years that followed.

Until then, Fowler had played 160 times and scored 91 goals, a rate of return superior to that achieved by John Toshack or even Rush himself. Since then his career has been laid waste by successive injuries, in which time he found the net a further 19 times in 48 matches.

Before taking on Chelsea, Fowler admitted to 14 months of feeling "very low". The game, however, had not lost faith in him. Peter Reid, asked to compare Kevin Phillips to Michael Owen, remarked that Fowler eclipsed both of them. Kevin Keegan discarded Andy Cole and performed mental gymnastics to justify the decision to force a palpably unfit Fowler into his squad for the disastrous European Championship campaign in which, predictably, he played no part.

The Kop, that most generous of crowds, also kept believing. "The support has been phenomenal," he said. "When I came on against Sunderland this season and heard the noise from the fans, the hairs on the back of my neck stood up. It was one of the proudest moments of my life. It proved to me that I was not forgotten."

Even though, like Owen and McManaman, Fowler supported Everton as a boy, he is to Liverpool fans "one of us". The way he demonstrated his support for the striking Mersey dockers by unveiling a T-shirt on live television touched a nerve, while his attempts to persuade the referee Gerald Ashby that he had not been brought down by David Seaman for a penalty appealed to an innate sense of fair play for which he was rewarded by Fifa, the game's world governing body.

There are other, less admirable aspects to Fowler; baring his buttocks at Graeme Le Saux, then the subject of rumours about his sexuality, and answering Everton taunts that he was a "smackhead" by pretending to sniff cocaine, earned him a six-match ban and cemented his reputation as a scally.

The "cocaine incident" ruined what Fowler still regards as his best-ever game for Liverpool. But those close to him say that, at 25, he is showing a new maturity. The Spice Boys have long been broken up, he has become a father twice and communicates to his fans through an engaging personal website.

Houllier has tapped into this new attitude. "In terms of responsibility Fowler can be like Eric Cantona," he said before the season began. "He can play a similar role with regard to himself and the team as Cantona did for Manchester United."

But first, Houllier must ensure Fowler remains at Anfield. The signing of Emile Heskey, a striker who combines more naturally with Owen, has thrown up selection problems, and there is the gnawing knowledge that Fowler's only winners' medal came in the 1995 League Cup. McManaman, his closest friend in football, may have been discarded by Real Madrid, but he has won the European Cup and Fowler has publicly stated that the one thing that would make him leave was if Liverpool were not genuine challengers.

"When I first broke into the team I had these dreams about winning trophies on a regular basis," he said. "It was going to be hard to emulate the achievements of the past but I didn't think we'd go so long without winning the Championship. It's incredible to think it is 10 years since we were last top of the table, and that's something we have to put right."