Maturing Fowler in a rush to achieve more goals

FA Cup Final: Guy Hodgson on the young Anfield striker whose progress has astounded
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The scene outside Liverpool's training ground, Melwood, was not unusual in that there was a group of people wanting to meet Robbie Fowler. Their purpose? "We've come to present him with a trophy," one said to a sceptical security man. With exaggerated weariness, he noted a name and shut the door.

Getting hold of Fowler is almost an industry in Liverpool. "We hear all sorts of stories," another club employee explained later.

"You know what they're like round here. They'll try anything on. Robbie must have around a thousand cousins and a hundred brothers and sisters."

As it happened, the callers this time were genuine and proudly had their photographs taken with their old boy. The trophy was for player of the year, circa 1990, for a boys' team that had also included Everton's Tony Grant.

"Funny thing is, we all thought Tony would be the one," a man from the presentation party said. "He's doing fine, he's a good player, but Robbie's unbelievable."

It is something Premiership defenders would reluctantly agree with. For years their battered senses could take comfort that Ian Rush might still be deadly but at least he was getting old. No one could be as good as Rushie, surely? Then Fowler came along, suggesting he might even be better.

Rush, himself, noted it straight away. "He was 14 or 15," he said, "but the first time he got the ball he turned and made space for himself. That's a skill only a natural striker has."

Since scoring on his debut at Fulham in September 1993, this instinct has yielded 85 goals in less than three seasons. He has also been voted Young Player of the Year twice by his fellow professionals and capped by England. On top of that, if he strikes against Manchester United today at Wembley, he will become the first player to score in every round of the FA Cup since Peter Osgood in 1970.

Bandwagons are to be avoided, but Fowler has had so many luminaries in the game singing his praises. With this one, you either get on or risk being run over.

"He's the closest thing to Jimmy Greaves I've seen," Denis Law, the former Manchester United and Scotland striker, said. "Possibly braver. There are many players who get the ball in the area and you don't fear any danger. He gets it and you think 'that's going in'."

His second goal, a looping shot from 20 yards, in last month's semi-final against Aston Villa, had Law purring. "A lot of players would have lashed at it but he almost lobbed his shot and gave the goalkeeper no chance at all. That takes a lot of skill and even more confidence."

Roger Hunt, a member of the Liverpool dynasty of strikers, is equally effusive. "His reputation has meant he was bound to get more attention from defenders and be more closely marked. The fact that he's still getting goals in the face of that shows how good he is. His rate of scoring is terrific."

Strangely, his most productive season so far - 36 goals - began with Fowler, 21, seemingly at odds with his renown and his manager, Roy Evans. The signing of the pounds 8m Stan Collymore and the continued excellence of Rush meant he was substitute for the first two of Liverpool's matches and had Collymore not been injured against Leeds, his partial banishment might have continued.

The moments of indiscipline that included a pounds 1,000 fine from the FA and a severe admonishment from the club for an indiscreet interview in the magazine Loaded seemed to be coming thicker and faster.

When he turned up at Melwood with a black eye administered by his team- mate, Neil Ruddock, a talent seemed to be heading for self-destruction. Thankfully, he has avoided pressing the button.

"I needed to grow up," Fowler conceded, "and I have done. It hurt like hell when I was left out at the start of the season but I kept my mouth shut and never said a word of complaint to the boss. I knew I'd get the chance, and when I did I'd do well. I've never lacked confidence in myself.

"If I ever got flash, my dad would soon put me down. He's watched every game I've played since I was 11 and he knows when to put me in place. Anyway, I'm not big-headed in the least. I like to think I'm the same Robbie Fowler now who joined Liverpool as a kid."

The same Fowler who has put four goals past Manchester United this season - Rush needed a decade to get his first against them - and who has struck at such a prolific rate that Collymore has had to adapt to become part provider for his younger partner.

United, certainly, are wary. "He has a lot of attributes," Brian McClair, who played against him at Anfield this season, said. "He scores goals with his left foot, right foot, headers. One of his best attributes is his movement. He's very intelligent and very quick. I wouldn't like to mark him."

Fortunately for McClair he is unlikely to have to. That will fall to either David May or Steve Bruce, and their success or otherwise in keeping Fowler quiet will have a great bearing on where the FA Cup goes today.

That is one trophy he will not want to wait six years to get his hands on.

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