Only two players in Liverpool’s long and glorious history can be said to have gone from being merely great to the point where even those who have never seen them speak their name in hushed tones.
How many present day Reds saw Billy Liddell in his prime? Half the people who could respond in the affirmative to that question wouldn’t remember their own name, let alone any particular instance of Liddell magic. It’s an article of faith among Reds that Liddell was a giant amongst men, and woe betide anyone who might besmirch that faith by questioning such hyperbole on the basis that they never saw the man play.
The other player to transcend greatness to the status of myth and fable is Kenny Dalglish. This is certainly more justified than the Liddell legend, as a fair proportion of present day Reds saw him weave his magic. Four different locals have, without any prompting from me, detailed their first memory of King Kenny. None of them speak of the same incident, but the story is always the same. The summer of 1977 saw much fretting about how Liverpool were going to replace Kevin Keegan, and everyone feared that the mulleted Scotsman wouldn’t be up to the job. But once eyes were clapped on Kenny, and he had produced some moment of football genius that would leave Pele or Puskas gasping with admiration, the refrain would be: Kevin who? A star was born, and eight championships and three European Cups later, the glow hasn’t dimmed one jot.
The devotion to Kenny still has a degree of blind faith attached to it. We sing “with Kenny Dalglish on the ball/He was the greatest of them all” without ever stopping to consider that we’re being sold a pup. I never saw Kenny Dalglish play in the flesh and he was well past his peak when I saw him on television, yet I will reject my usual habit of only believing the evidence of mine own eyes and blithely accept that he was indeed The Greatest. Only Liddell and Dalglish have earned this kind of unequivocal worship.
None of the present crop has a chance of reaching this status. Sami Hyypia is a defender and who hero-worships defenders apart from retired defenders turned embittered pundit? Steven Gerrard might yet rise to greatness, but a couple of dud years have left the proto-legend tarnished. As for Michael Owen, he could score a hat-trick in every game and people would still question his bona fides. He’s just too bland to be worshipped, his obvious affection for England viewed by many as a betrayal. Owen single-handedly won the FA Cup for us two years ago, yet much of the praise he received was so faint as to be damnation. Some day he’ll get the praise he deserves – let’s just hope it’s not while playing for Juventus.
While the current luminaries are not likely to ever have campaigns for statues to be erected in their honour – or gateways; at the present rate Anfield will have more gates than turnstiles – there is one man plying his trade in the Premiership who looked like he could enter the pantheon alongside Liddell and Dalglish. Robbie Fowler is returning to Anfield on Saturday for the first time since his departure over a year and a half ago.
History will probably remember him as the penalty area predator, generally scoring from close-in. But what will always stick with me is the breadth of the quality of his goals. Right foot, left foot – he’s left footed, but you’d be hard pressed to identify that from just looking at his goals – volleys, snapshots, penalties, free-kicks, mazy dribbles, inside the area, outside the area, even an incredible ability to head the ball despite his diminutive size. The archetypal Fowler goal came against Aston Villa in the 1996/7 season. Receiving the ball in the middle of the Villa half with his back to goal, he turned Steve Staunton every which way before unleashing a howitzer of a shot that didn’t deviate from its straight path to the top corner of the net. While being mobbed by delirious Kopites in the aftermath of that strike, one man stepped back, patted Robbie on the back and gave a gentle, disbelieving shake of the head at the preposterous ability of this young man. Seeing is believing, but like Liddell and Dalglish before him, Fowler was approaching the stage where we were happy not to see yet believe. Not for nothing was he known as God.
So where did it go wrong for Robbie Fowler, for go wrong it most certainly did. I’m reluctant to say too much in case he firmly rams any controversial comment down my throat at the weekend (not that he’ll ever read what I’ve said, though a man can hope). But the firmest evidence of his slide down the football food chain came not with his transfer from Liverpool to Leeds United – his 15 goals at Elland Road in only 27 games represents an excellent performance – but with his transfer from Leeds United to Manchester City. Forget about the on-off transfer fiasco, although that was demeaning enough in itself, and remember the links with Manchester United, not City. Memories of his stellar performances for the Reds meant that the link was made, and bloody nervous they made me too. The thought of him banging them in for Demento is enough to make the sternest of hearts tremble. But in the end, barring a resurrection that would leave Jesus (Christ, not Gil) whistling with amazement, Robbie’s days as a member of football’s highest echelons are over.
So where did it go wrong for Robbie Fowler? Everything that could go wrong did go wrong, apart from a career ending injury and he had a few career threatening ones. He lost the Svengali-like figures that might have kept his career curving upwards, first Ian Rush then Roy Evans. Under Roy’s Spice Boys regime, Robbie could be characterised as one of the players most dedicated to his craft – no modelling career or blaming failure on Playstations for Robbie. But when Houllier came in, what was previously a relatively professional lifestyle looked positively debauched. His relationship with Ged has always been a puzzle. Le Boss would oscillate between defending him to the point of idiocy (the line-sniffing incident in the derby) and publicly humiliating him (for booting the ball at Thommo). His relationship with the football authorities was perfectly transparent though: they hated him. The line-sniffing thing earned him a four-match ban. Compare and contrast with the softly-softly treatment of Wayne Rooney when he cleared his throat in the direction of Liverpool fans. Neither was a heinous crime, but the FA threw the book at the Toxteth tearaway while blithely turning a blind eye at the behaviour of the Croxteth version. At the same time, he received a two-match ban for wiggling his bum at Graeme Le Saux. Crass and all as his behaviour was, Guardianista Graeme received a one-match ban for punching Fowler in the back of the head. The double standards would be enough to drive anyone to drink. Or worse.
Fowler’s playing career featured noteworthy moments where opportunity passed like a ship in the night. His most fruitful period was with Stan Collymore, and it can hardly be his fault that Stanley had a couple of screws loose which cut that partnership prematurely short. Injuries always seemed to come along when major championships were in the offing which didn’t upset Reds too much but probably had Robbie tearing his hair out in frustration, bleached blonde or not. Then there was that boy called Owen. Robbie at his best certainly withstood comparisons with Michael, supposedly a duel of the most naturally gifted finisher of his generation versus the one-dimensional speed merchant. But when the chips were down, Robbie invariably folded while Michael behaved like he had a royal straight flush. Whatever you may think about his expressions of lurve for his country, Owen’s repeated acts of glory on the biggest stage are a hallmark of true genius. By those standards, Fowler’s performances in internationals were anaemic. Some might say he was never given a run in the team, but neither was Owen. He simply demanded to be picked by scoring goals. His goal against Argentina was obviously a splendid moment, but the performance in the earlier game against Romania was just as remarkable. Brought on to save the game, he scored a fantastic equaliser to reward the faith of the thousands of England fans who had demanded his entry bare minutes before. Then when Le Saux made an arse of himself (fnar fnar) in the last minute to gift the lead back to Romania, Michael almost saved the day again, his long-range shot hitting the post. It was stirring stuff, and proof that he thrived on the situations that caused others to wilt.
A more galling comparison for Robbie Fowler would be the respective performances in cup finals. Again, some would say that fate conspired against Robbie, his spectacular interventions against Birmingham and Alaves – and yes, they were as good a pair of strikes as you’d ever see – rendered redundant by last-minute wobbles at the other end of the field. Still, even if those goals had turned out to be match winners, no one would refer to either victory as solely down to Robbie Fowler. Worse still, the one cup final that he could truly have stamped his vision on, the 1996 FA Cup final, saw a performance as spasmodic as any produced by a Liverpool player that day. Collymore looked the more likely for long periods, but it was he who was hauled ashore to bring on Rush. Perhaps it was to protect Fowler’s run of scoring in every round, perhaps it was to reunite the partnership of the previous season, perhaps (probably) it wouldn’t have made any difference. But the onus was on Robbie, and he couldn’t work the oracle. Compare this to Owen against Arsenal five years later. We couldn’t see where salvation was coming from, and nooses were being prepped all over the world. It was from this most unattractive set-up imaginable that Owen conjured the most unlikely and wonderful victory imaginable. Michael was, and is, the man for the big occasion. Against that, Robbie just can’t compete.
When Fowler and Redknapp lifted Owen’s cup that day in Cardiff, anyone who would have said that both would be on their way within a year would have been asked to step out of the vehicle and blow in this bag, sir. Yet that’s what transpired, and the ease with which most Liverpool fans accepted the departure of God was one of the strangest occurrences of recent times. I was at the first game Liverpool played immediately after the sale of Fowler against Derby County. It was generally accepted that a Fowler chant would start at some stage. But there wasn’t a peep, and there hasn’t been since. It not only demonstrates the ability of football fans to perform the most intricate of voltes-face – we cheered for Paul Ince, after all – but also the fact that the sale of God didn’t upset people that much. It was time for us all to move on. Through The Wind & Rain repeatedly got its knickers in a twist over the sense of betrayal, and She Who Must Be Obeyed will insist that Thommo pushed it past a dying Houllier. But for the most part, the message was to go forth and multiply, but don’t score against us. So long, and thanks for all the wonderful memories.
Which is where we stand today. The Kop will give him a thunderous roar of approval on Saturday, and his name will be chanted for all to hear, an accolade he thoroughly deserves. Jamie Redknapp got a rapturous reception despite having only a fraction of the impact of Fowler, so by that standard we can expect the statue of Shanks to walk into the ground and join in the applause. (The praise showered on the Old Trafford crowd for their acknowledgement of Ronaldo’s genius will have drawn snorts of derision from Reds for whom such gestures are second nature). But let’s not get carried away. The past is a foreign country, they do things differently there, and in the present we cheer for the team in red. Right?