Liverpool bids farewell to the last Spice Boy

Fowler's time under Houllier proves that striker rotation does not work as its casualties litter the game
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The Independent Football

The fanzine seller opposite the Shankly Gates was smiling. An idol of The Kop had left to play in a famous all-white strip but another had opted to remain in Liverpool. "God is in his Kingdom" trumpeted the magazine's front page. Steve McManaman had gone to Real Madrid but Robbie Fowler had signed a fresh contract.

Two years later and God is leaving Anfield for the far side of the Pennines and the shock is not just that the scally from Toxteth has quit, but where he has chosen to go. In the past which Liverpool holds so dear great players left but generally not to a rival club. Kevin Keegan went to Hamburg, Ian Rush spent a fitful year at Juventus, John Aldridge departed to Real Sociedad, McManaman to Madrid.

To sell a key player to a side that might challenge your hold on the title ran against the tenets of the Boot Room, whose last survivor, Phil Thompson, is now in charge of first-team affairs as Gérard Houllier recovers from heart surgery.

And yet it was Liverpool's experience with McManaman, one of Fowler's closest friends, that has been a factor in why they let him go. In 1997, when McManaman had 18 months remaining on his contract (precisely the stage of Fowler's deal at Liverpool), a fee of £12m was agreed with Barcelona (precisely the amount Liverpool claim to have accepted from Leeds). The move collapsed, McManaman left for nothing, playing out his final season in a desultory manner.

The story of Fowler's time under Houllier is proof that striker rotation does not work. Its casualties litter football. These days Dwight Yorke and Andy Cole sit disgruntled on Old Trafford's benches while their private lives take up more newspaper column inches than their goalscoring. In London, Dennis Bergkamp and Sergei Rebrov feel unwanted. Add Fowler to the mix and you have £49m worth of talent rusting away like the ships of the old Soviet fleets. On Wednesday, Thompson admitted as much: "I don't think everybody has been happy with the rotation system and Robbie felt it more than anybody."

Merseyside is alive with speculation as to who will replace Fowler, although, when Keegan sold Cole to Manchester United in January 1995 and faced protesting fans on the steps of St James' Park, the Newcastle manager had nobody in mind.

They did not lay siege to the Shankly Gates – which they would have done had Michael Owen been allowed to leave. A poll conducted by the Liverpool Echo initially showed heavy resistance to Fowler's departure with 79 per cent against. By yesterday, this had softened to 64 per cent and its Liverpool correspondent, Chris Bascombe, was urging readers to "put away the Kleenex and move on".

There is, however, a poignancy about the timing of Fowler's departure. The pale product of the Nugent High School signed professional forms with the club in 1992, the year Liverpool won the FA Cup and the one remembered as the beginning of the long barren spell that yielded just one more trophy in nine years. He is leaving after a period in which Liverpool have won five pieces of silverware in six months and when they might take the championship that has eluded them for more than a decade.

In those desert years he burned fiercely bright. Famously, he announced himself with five goals in a League Cup tie against Fulham, who are likely to be his first opponents for Leeds on Sunday, and until he damaged his knee ligaments in a collision with Thomas Myhre in the 1998 Merseyside derby Fowler's record of 92 goals in 160 games was a better ratio than Rush or John Toshack achieved. Over the three subsequent seasons, he averaged 22 matches and eight goals.

Crucially, perhaps, he was still recovering when Houllier arrived and as late as this September his form and fitness were being openly questioned by a manager who appeared to show him little outward sympathy. However, with a fine performance in the World Cup qualifier in Athens and a beautifully-taken goal against Albania at St James', he was proving his international credentials and to the Sunderland manager, Peter Reid, a one-time Kopite, he remained "the top jolly", the one striker he would consider exchanging Kevin Phillips for.

At a time when footballers are as distant from their fans as Orion is from the Mersey, Fowler struck a chord. It was not just his support for the striking Liverpool dockers, which ludicrously cost him a £900 fine, or his sportsmanship in refusing to accept the award of a penalty at Highbury. It was that, despite growing up supporting Everton, to The Kop Fowler was recognisably "one of us".

"It's breaking his heart to leave but he feels he needs first-team football," commented the club captain Jamie Redknapp yesterday. "It will be strange not having him around because he was the heart and soul of the dressing-room. Sometimes, he was a bit of a rascal but that made you love him even more."

The "bit of a rascal" tends to colour recent images of Fowler. Baring his buttocks at Graeme Le Saux and pretending to sniff cocaine earned him a six-match ban, although a few months ago he claimed to have discovered a greater maturity that comes with marriage and children. "You don't read about me being out all the time, you don't read about me being drunk," he said.

Nevertheless, we read about his bust-up with Thompson at Melwood which led to his omission from the Charity Shield, where once more Owen dazzled, and this week we read about his leaving. It marks the final passing of the old pre-Houllier order at Anfield. Liverpool has lost its last Spice Boy.