Tuesday 17 November 2015 16:56, UK
Some players scored more, other talents burned brighter for longer, but nobody in Premier League history scored so many so quickly as Robbie Fowler. With the help of old team-mates, Adam Bate looks back on a remarkable career...
Former England winger Trevor Sinclair is trying to describe a goal, but he's struggling. It's not the memory that's failing him. Two decades have passed but he recalls the events with crystal clarity. It's the body that he's attempting to contort in order to adequately convey what he'd witnessed.
The scene was an England Under-21 game in 1993. There were 200 people there. "We were playing San Marino away from home," Sinclair tells Sky Sports. "I went down the left and overcooked the cross. It was a poor ball and went behind him towards the 18-yard box. How he did it I don't know.
"He bent his head down, headed the ball and scored from near the edge of the area. Talk about making a bad cross into a good one, it was unbelievable. I was shocked at how good he was at finishing." It was Sinclair's first taste of Robbie Fowler's extraordinary talent for scoring goals.
Jamie Redknapp was a Liverpool regular when Fowler made his breakthrough. His first impressions were not so positive. "I mean this in the nicest possible way, but if you look at his physique and his stature he shouldn't have been the player he was," says Redknapp, retaining a sense of disbelief.
He wasn't very tall, wasn't athletic looking, he had funny little legs, a paunch almost at times, no real strength if you compare him to the modern thoroughbred footballers. But nobody -- nobody -- could finish like him.
"He wasn't very tall, wasn't athletic looking, he had funny little legs, a paunch almost at times, no real strength if you compare him to the modern thoroughbred footballers. But nobody -- nobody -- could finish like him."
Redknapp's real induction to the Fowler phenomenon came ahead of his debut. "We had a practice game against the youth team. He played up front and hadn't done a lot but then the ball came to him and he turned one of the defenders and whacked one in from 20 yards.
"I was like, 'He looks like he can play, this kid'. But then his coach said something to him and he said something back. I told him, 'Hey, you can't talk to your coach like that' and he went sheepish. The next day we were playing Fulham in the League Cup and he got on the bus.
"I thought, 'That's nice for him, get a bit of experience'. Anyway, he ended up starting the game and scoring. In the second leg, he played again two weeks later and got five goals. It was absolutely astonishing."
What becomes clear very quickly is that so many of that generation have their own Fowler story. Many a player has earned the adulation of the crowds, but only a select few get to wow their own colleagues. Even in the upper echelons of the Premier League, Fowler stood out.
The numbers help to explain why. The goals came quickly and the sheer volume of them was outrageous. In an era when a good run of games can earn an England call-up, Fowler's record can appear freakish. He scored 80 times in 135 games for Liverpool before his international debut.
At Euro '96, Fowler sat on the bench having scored 36 goals for his club in the preceding season. Despite the emergence of Michael Owen and the popularity of Fernando Torres and Luis Suarez at Anfield, it's a total that's not been matched since. Fowler had just turned 21.
Owen may have been Liverpool's 'Boy Wonder' but even his tally of 55 Premier League goals under the age of 21 is only second best. Wayne Rooney starred at Euro 2004 while still a teenager but trails behind with 44 goals. Fowler is out on his own with 64 of them before his 21st birthday.
By then he had partnered and eclipsed Ian Rush, Liverpool's stand-out striker of the past decade. In doing so, the lad from Toxteth was living the dream for the Liverpool fans who adored him. It showed too.
Brave in the air without being built like a boxer, Fowler had impish pace but was not an out-and-out sprinter either. He looked to have bounded straight off the playground and into the Premier League. There was no period of adjustment required.
Following his five against Fulham, Fowler scored his first Premier League hat-trick in his fifth game and bettered that by scoring one inside five minutes against Arsenal in 1994. It was all done with the effortlessness of the natural. England's heir to Jimmy Greaves.
"My dad always compared him to Greaves," adds Redknapp. "It was the way he'd go to shoot and put the keeper on his backside." Competing with Alan Shearer, Andy Cole, Ian Wright, Les Ferdinand, Stan Collymore and Teddy Sheringham, Fowler was still seen as the finisher.
For Sinclair, who went on to play alongside Fowler at Manchester City as well as for his country, the distinction was clear. The Premier League had plenty of quality goalscorers, but with a football at his feet and a goalkeeper to beat, Fowler was simply superior to the rest.
"He's not like an Andy Cole who'd score them off his knee or bobble one into the bottom corner," says Sinclair. "Robbie Fowler was a purist. His technique was absolutely outstanding. He was the most accurate striker of a ball I've ever played with.
"It probably wasn't until he came to City that I fully appreciated this. Before a game or in training, you'll get a ball and stand 20 yards apart and just drill that ball to each other. I've been involved in thousands of them with a team-mate. With Robbie, I didn't have to move.
"Usually you'll get a guy who can really zip it around on his favoured foot but on the other foot there would be a couple of loose ones. Robbie Fowler's accuracy was just bizarre. He was like a robot. Immediately, you realised why he scored so many goals."
Unfortunately, injuries hampered Fowler in his later career and while his finishing ability never left him, the turn of pace which had allowed him to find space in the penalty box would prove increasingly elusive. Sinclair empathised with Fowler's plight.
"If it's the way you're preparing or in you're in a bad run of form, you've got these problem-solving skills that you've had all your career that will help you put it right. But when it's something mechanical and you can't put it right physically yourself, it's so frustrating.
"Robbie with his hip and me with my knee, probably had similar feelings at City. We had some highlights there but for a player of Robbie's ilk or even myself, it's not about doing it for a handful of games, it's about doing it week in week out. Injuries didn't allow us to do that."
Redknapp endures similar problems. "Robbie, a little bit like myself, picked up injuries at really bad times. He was very unfortunate." After scoring more than 30 goals in three consecutive seasons as a youngster, Fowler never once hit the 20-goal mark after turning 23.
He returned to Liverpool following the club's 2005 Champions League win and was cup-tied for their FA Cup triumph in 2006. As a result, Fowler's last silverware came at the age of 26 and he never so much as started a game for England at a major tournament.
No matter. In Redknapp's view, his status is assured. "Some people who won trophies turn around and say, 'What did you win?' But some players who couldn't lace Robbie's boots have won five league trophies. Does that make them better than Robbie? Of course it doesn't.
"He should have played for England a bit more but he was up against Alan Shearer. There's no doubt about his ability. I'd put him up there against anybody who has played in the Premier League. Ask any forward, they'd tell you same. Everybody was in awe of his talents.
"I don't like to use the word lightly but Robbie was a genius as a footballer. An unusual genius." It's an unusual epitaph too. But then, as Sinclair is well aware, explaining Fowler's knack for scoring goals isn't quite as simple as the man himself used to make it look.
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