Year Zero: The making of Robbie Fowler (Liverpool, 1994/95)
Robbie Fowler’s career grew out of political chaos at Liverpool. He may have had the talent to grasp his opportunity, but its timing owed much to the trouble Graeme Souness had created for himself by the late summer of 1993.
Souness’s managerial personality mimicked his playing style. Perhaps too much. Appointed in 1991, he lasted just three years at Anfield and, though that spell yielded an FA Cup win at the end of his first season, the Scot’s time as manager is remembered for its friction and the alienation it caused.
He was too aggressive in his determination to purge established players, losing the trust of some and selling others in his attempts to build a side equipped for the 1990s. Worse, he made a serious error of judgement after his heart bypass surgery by selling the story of his recovery to The Sun. He eventually donated his fee to a local children’s hospital, but – quite understandably – it still bred considerable acrimony.
The Anfield dressing room housed a fog of conspiracies and plotting and, as early as 1992, Souness’s departure seemed to be only a matter of time.
And yet it was that weak position which created the conditions for youth players to graduate. Short as Souness’s reign was, Steve McManaman, Rob Jones, Don Hutchison, Jamie Redknapp, Dominic Matteo and David James were all given first-team opportunities by the Scot. Fowler too, though talented and deserving, also benefited from his manager’s attempts to forge a new team from loyal players and satisfy a crowd that would inevitably gravitate towards their own.
In September 1993, away to Fulham in the Coca-Cola Cup, an 18-year-old Fowler made his first start for Liverpool... and scored his first goal. It set the template for those early, thrilling years. A deep Hutchison cross dropped to him at the far post and, without inhibition or hesitation, Fowler leathered the ball into the roof of the net.
Under different circumstances, that would have been the start of his rise to the top. He kept his place in the team, making his first Premier League start against Chelsea the following weekend, and began to score goals at a ferocious pace – including five at Anfield in the return leg against Fulham, a hat-trick against Southampton, two at Tottenham, and a winner in his first Merseyside derby.
However, a broken ankle sustained in January 1994 hindered his progress. Before he could return, time had run out for Souness: he resigned following a shocking loss to Bristol City at Anfield in the League Cup, and was replaced by Roy Evans.
Evans was a more gentle soul. A Boot Room alumnus hired to cool the scorched earth left by his predecessor and restore the harmony of the previous decade, Evans was initially cautious around his teenage forward and believed that he had been given his debut too young. Within months, he was cheerfully climbing down from that position.
In 1994/95, Fowler’s career pierced the stratosphere. He scored one of Liverpool’s six opening-day goals against Crystal Palace, then eight days required just four minutes and 33 seconds to complete a hat-trick against Arsenal in front of the Sky Sports cameras. The football writer David Lacey referred to it as a “machine-gun rattle of goals”; certainly, the expressions worn on Arsenal faces that day suggested a heavy-shelling.
It was an iconic landmark, one which would stand for over 20 years (Sadio Mane broke it in May 2015 against Aston Villa, thumping his treble in a ludicrous two minutes and 56 seconds) – but it was also the moment at which the brand ironing was pressed to his skin, and from which there was no returning.
“With Sky there and them still trying to pump their coverage for all it was worth to get more viewers, my performance was a gift to them,” Fowler later recalled. “What they wanted were images to their coverage, and idols to sell dishes. I was a goalscorer and I was young, and that season I was hot. So I got the full treatment. I was everywhere, the goals shown over and over again, the papers full of pictures of me, everyone wanting to know about me. I guess that hat-trick cemented me in the public eye.”
“God” was born. Fowler may have returned to his mother’s house that night, picking up some ribs and special fried rice on the way, but the world was changing around him.