Robbie Fowler: Spice Boy, Toxteth Terror or God?

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The Independent Online

Not long after announcing his arrival at Anfield with five goals against Fulham in a Coca-Cola Cup tie in 1993, Robbie Fowler picked up his training bib and found the name "God" daubed across the back. During his first four prolific years at the club it was a moniker that aptly, if somewhat blasphemously, captured the spirit of a young phenomenon heralded as the saviour of a football club struggling to come to terms with life without the League title. Even his most ardent admirer at Anfield, of which there remain many, would never have believed in this second coming, however.

The "Toxteth Terror", as he was known before graduating to more celestial heights, never wanted to leave the club where he became the fastest player to 100 goals and registered 171 in total from 330 games. To this day, the 30-year-old claims he would have remained at Anfield and been part of last season's Champions' League-winning side but for Gérard Houllier driving him out of the club.

It is an incredible notion, even if the former Liverpool manager did undermine the local hero before his £11m move to Leeds United and Milan Baros did lead the team's attack in Istanbul. Injuries restricted Fowler to just 63 league starts in three years at Manchester City but had begun to lessen his impact before he left for Elland Road in December 2001.

Yet when the news broke last night that the reigning European champions had found the solution to their need for a natural goalscorer and he was a player with only five appearances to his name this season and a serious back problem, it was greeted with euphoria throughout Merseyside, albeit laced with bemusement in some quarters.

To many outside Anfield Fowler was the archetypal Spice Boy more interested in modelling assignments, photo-shoots and other celebrity perks while Roy Evans was struggling to cajole a team of supremely talented, British youngsters to realise their potential.

While Evans' problems were true, the image of Fowler the Spice Boy was not. While he was involved in controversies during his early Liverpool career, including cutting to pieces an expensive pair of Italian shoes that belonged to Neil Ruddock and receiving a punch to the mouth at Liverpool Airport for his troubles, the striker was recognised more as a loveable rogue, a scally, than a symptomatic problem of the club's under-achievement. Modelling assignments? Take a look at that face.

Though born and raised an avid Evertonian, watching the club's triumphs of the 1980s and idolising Graeme Sharp, Fowler was embraced by The Kop. A working-class boy from Toxteth, the first young superstar of the Premiership, only without the agencies and protection that now shape Wayne Rooney's career, and a honest professional.

When Fowler raised his red shirt to reveal a T-shirt proclaiming support for the sacked Liverpool dockers during the 1996-97 season it was an act that demonstrated his affinity and awareness of his home city. The day before he received a £900 fine from Uefa for his political outburst, Fowler was sent a letter from Fifa president Sepp Blatter congratulations for his sportsmanship in telling referee Gerald Ashby that he had not been fouled for a penalty awarded at Highbury.

Problems with authority added to Fowler's appeal at Liverpool. He was handed a six-match ban for insulting Graeme Le Saux and for his infamous drug-sniffing celebration against Everton in 1998, but what hurt him most of all was leaving Liverpool through the back door. His last appearance for the club was at home to Sunderland in November 2001, only six months after he had played an integral part in the Uefa, FA and Worthington Cup treble, and ended when he was substituted at half-time.

Fowler has been afforded a tumultuous reception upon his occasional returns to Anfield, unlike Michael Owen, but even when they were both at the club and the younger, outstanding marksman was the preferred choice it was his predecessor who was held in more affection. At Anfield next Wednesday, when Liverpool entertain Birmingham City, there will be an emotional reminder of that.

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