Sharp shooter with edge

Robbie Fowler, model striker, is ready to do justice to a brash but brilliant talent. Ian Ridley reports
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The Independent Online
It was perfect symbolism. In celebrating his second goal against Brann of Bergen, Robbie Fowler lifted the revered crimson shirt to reveal a message supporting the sacked Liverpool dockers. The C and the K of "dockers" were in the style of the designer Calvin Klein. Passion and fashion exploded together.

Liverpool's bright, brash things have not always been appreciated, even by their own support on Merseyside. These Spice Lads with their modelling contracts and their flash cars have been seen by some as uncaringly divorced from a city that has embraced tragedy and economic hardship, unlike Red- remembered predecessors. Take Thursday's irony.

As you turned back from the Liverpool Echo preview of the game these rich young men would play against Brann a few hours later, you read of fears about a new Hillsborough inquiry being forgotten amid the general election, of the "Women of the Waterfront" campaign for their menfolk and of 800 more jobs with the city council and Littlewoods being lost.

Thus was Fowler's Steve McManaman-instigated gesture of solidarity welcome and timely, even if officially frowned upon. At the club's Melwood training ground the next lunchtime, to appease football's governing bodies, the Liverpool manager, Roy Evans, read out a statement about not condoning political messages but you sensed that the real mood was more "good on yer, our kid". It was surely a more PC kind of flash.

The Boys 'R' Us stuff really grates with the Liverpool players. "We get criticised for all sorts of things," says Evans, aware of the soft-centred, preening epithets. "The lads are criticised for the modelling, that their activities off the pitch are more important than on. That's the biggest load of rubbish.

"These lads are good pros. Of course they do an extra bit here and there. That's the way football has gone commercially but their main thought is training, looking after themselves and performing on the pitch. Some of it angers them but we say the only way to put it right is to win something."

Fowler is probably the pulse of the team, physically and metaphorically. At 22 next month, he seems to be through the worst of the backside-baring, prankish phase - "It's true I've been known to stick luggage labels on myself and go around the conveyor belt at airports," he has admitted - and ready to do justice to extravagant talent.

The next week will tell us much. Following the sound 3-0 win over Bergen to set up a Cup-Winners' Cup semi-final against Paris St Germain and keep them on course to become the first British club to win all three European trophies, comes an epic championship confrontation against Arsenal at Highbury tomorrow night and, probably - with Alan Shearer and Les Ferdinand injured - Fowler's first start for England against Mexico at Wembley on Saturday.

It would be fascinating for him to tell us himself of a new maturity - junk food out, pasta in; up an hour earlier in the morning - that may mirror the team's development, but last week he was keeping his own counsel again, even to the exasperation of his sponsors Nike, with whom he has a five-year boot deal reported to be worth up to pounds 3m.

He is apparently suffering from the after-effects of that painful condition termed being turned over by the tabloids - though he does not always shrink from taking their money - or perhaps he is taking too seriously this "performers with edge and attitude" stuff, which seems to stimulate kids and their long- suffering, trainer-buying parents.

Materially, all is in place; the move from Toxteth to Mossley Hill and big house for his family, the BMW he once said was not his style. Now comes the transition that the team must also make from outrageous promise, which has twice won him the Young

Player of the Year, to tangible fulfilment. Liverpool have brought him on thoughtfully, indulging him at times, unwilling to curb the natural exuberance, then dropping him last season when necessary. He should have received the message.

Fowler's record suggests that reward for him and club should not be far away. This season, in scoring four, against Middlesbrough, of his 28 so far he became quicker than his mentor Ian Rush to 100 goals. Arsenal will need little warning; they have conceded nine in the last three seasons to him. Liverpool should be optimistic anyway despite it being part of a tricky finish to the season, an extra incentive the Champions' League spot for runners-up.

"We have played better against the better teams," says Evans, seeking to be positive in the face of the evidence that teak-tough Manchester United and Arsenal both have more experience of title run-ins than this present crop, the club seven years now without the championship.

Many good judges have come forward to praise Fowler: Denis Law, Gary Lineker and Jimmy Greaves, to whom he bears striking similarity with his nerve, verve and vision in the penalty area. His T-shirt-baring second goal against Brann exemplified it; pulling away from the defence cannily, he called for the pass from Stig-Inge Bjornebye and passed it into the net. It would have been fitting had he acknowledged the Norwegian's work but selfishness can be the price of precociousness.

Clearly Fowler should be ready to start for England against Mexico next week, and with Teddy Sheringham fit again a promising partnership of incision and intelligence takes shape in the mind's eye. "It's not for me to pick the team but his record is

there to see," says Evans. "His scoring ratio over the last three years is unbelievable. We keep thinking that one of these days he'll stop but he keeps doing it. As he picks up more experience he gets better as a player."

His team-mate John Barnes certainly believes the time is right. "His all-round game has improved," he says. "He has allied work-rate and touch to his goalscoring so he should acquit himself well. But he needs the service. It is much harder in the international game to score goals so that if you are not going to get many chances, it is vital you take the ones that do come along. If not, you have to work hard and not give the ball away, to perform for the team."

Only when Fowler is given time on the pitch and a run in the team can his England calibre be truly judged. He can do no more than he has done so far in outpacing Premiership defences and scoring goals with, bravely, head and both feet from all kindsof distances. Flaws have not been too often apparent. Except...

A glaring miss against Nottingham Forest last week came moments after he had scored an excellent goal - his fourth in a spell of six in four matches - and did seem to reflect Liverpool's frustrating inability to see off sides when clearly on top. Fowler had also missed a hatful in a goalless draw against Blackburn. The subsequent point against Forest was the sixth time Liverpool had taken a lead this season only to finish with the single point.

It led to valid criticism about lack of ruthlessness, if not about lack of leadership or steel in the team with the Premiership's best defensive record. John Barnes: "People look at the Liverpool teams of the past and say that they always had a kicker or a fighter like Tommy Smith or Steve McMahon. OK, you can buy someone like that but maybe we would lose some of our flair or creativeness.

"Then people would say we needed someone who could put his foot on the ball. You are never going to get the perfect situation. If you changed the way this team played, then you might need a so-called enforcer to win the ball back but the way I look at it, if you don't give the ball away you don't have to win it back. I think Roy Evans knows what is necessary."

"We do need to kill games off," says Evans, "not in being defensive, because that's not the Liverpool style. It comes from experience, from appreciating that when you are ahead you should put the knife in. Concentration is the biggest thing and that's why European games help to educate players as Manchester United have found out. You can't afford to lose it. If we had beaten Newcastle 3-0, everyone would have said 'fantastic, flawless'. But 4-3 left us virtually discredited."

The Brann game was a further part of the process. Patience, probably the best passing in the English game and then panache prevailed, leaving the Norwegians' coach Kjell Tennfjord to lament: "Robbie Fowler is quite a good striker, isn't he?" Quite good is not good enough for Liverpool, however, certainly not with this potential. Nor should it be for Fowler when that potential is quite simply sensational.