Year Zero: The making of Robbie Fowler (Liverpool, 1994/95)
Attention and tape recorders
With 20 years of hindsight, it’s easy to overlook the challenges that the young Fowler faced. David Beckham was yet to redefine the way young footballers were covered by the mainstream press. So although the collective lens had already focused on a young Ryan Giggs, the mischievous Lee Sharpe and, to a certain extent, team-mate McManaman, Fowler was stepping into an unexplored environment.
In 2017, developing players are fiercely guarded by press officers and are fluent in platitude from a young age, but 25 years earlier that wasn’t the case: young, unrefined teenagers were thrust onto the stage and into a blinding spotlight. The clubs were just as unprepared as the players, though, and little was done to protect them from the dangers of fame. As David James would recall many years later: “I remember once mentioning the word 'psychologist' at Liverpool. I was later told quietly in a corridor that it was never going to happen, we were Liverpool, and to forget it – all because of some archaic identity that we could never change.”
The anecdotes Fowler tells from that time are also descriptive, with one in particular describing the naivety of that time. During a scheduled interview with a men’s magazine, he and McManaman – believing themselves to be out of earshot when the journalist in question left the room – got “creative” with their answers to the prepared questions. Alas, a whirring tape recorder had captured their conversation, with all its boyish snark and japery, and their antics had put them in the middle of a major controversy.
It was the kind of trap which today’s young professionals, guided at all times by media advisors, would never fall into. Back then, however, footballers were yet to realise that they were never really off the record.
The attention didn’t smother his form, though. By the time 1994 turned to 1995, Fowler had scored 18 Premier League goals. Other than the Arsenal hat-trick, two goals linger in the memory, both of which came against Aston Villa at Anfield.
The first, a rising, full-blooded drive into the top corner from the edge of the box, castled Mark Bosnich with its flummoxing power. The second, from similar range but tickled gently into the bottom corner, was precisely placed beyond the Australian’s reach.
4:12 for the brilliant first; No.2 at 7:20
Within that contrast lay part of Fowler’s appeal. He was an ordinary teenager from a local estate, the Boy King of Merseyside, but he was also a goalscorer of great variety. Those who paid to watch him, or who just tuned it at the right time each week, didn’t know what they were about to see. While other contemporary forwards specialised in scoring particular type of goals, Fowler’s trademark was his diversity: inside the box or outside, power or finesse, left foot, right foot or with his head.
On December 28, he ripped a swirling long-ranger into the top corner against Manchester City at Anfield. Three days later, he ran beyond the Leeds defence at Elland Road and converted his one-on-one with a calm side-footed finish.
00:20 for the latter goal
That was him. When his name flashed up on teletext, nobody knew quite what the Match of the Day cameras might have caught.
Regarding his fame, Fowler was right in one sense: Sky needed stars to sell their dishes and he was elevated to play a certain part. From another perspective, though, the costume he wore fitted perfectly: he embodied entertainment at a time when it was becoming a marketing imperative.
Head in the Sky
The 1994/95 season might be principally remembered for Fowler’s goals, as the majority of his early career is, but he was always slightly more than a centre-forward. He abhorred the media attention away from the field and has confessed to never being entirely comfortable with the public’s attention either, but his performances were never affected.
Certain incidents have endured, particularly those which attracted the FA’s attention, but Fowler was generally full of emotional expression on the pitch. He loved scoring goals, that much was obvious, but he seemed energised by the spectacle itself; the Toxteth lad was cheeky and uninhibited, an advert for just how much fun professional football could be.
What was really amazing about Robbie is that he didn’t look like an obviously great player
Fowler was also highly normal, both in the way he looked and how he played. John Barnes once made the observation that “what was really amazing about Robbie is that he didn’t look like an obviously great player. He wasn’t particularly quick, or tall or skilful, and I remember when he moved from the youth set-up to the first team he was very awkward in his manner on and off the pitch.”
Relatability is important. The early 1990s may have seen the birth of the footballing superstar, but the widening financial distance between players and supporters created a sense of unease. Fans may have wanted their heroes to perform superhuman feats, but they also craved the reassurance that, really, they were still just like them.
Somehow, Fowler struck that balance. Beckham would win the pop star wife and the modelling contracts, Jamie Redknapp followed suit and – hilariously – even Jason McAteer dallied in shampoo commercials, but Fowler remained distinctly ordinary. As the goals flew in and his reputation grew, he retained a texture which belied his celebrity and allowed his star to burn yet brighter.