Rooney may ramp up rivalry, but Fowler and Liverpool are top dogs for now
Of all the things that have powered Liverpool's attempts at being successful in recent seasons, local rivalry has been some way down the list.
The decline of Everton may have produced frequent moments of hilarity for the red half of Merseyside, but it has been a sad sight for football traditionalists who still regard the blues as one of English football's giants.
Everton's frenetic transfer activity in recent months appears to have galvanised their base, prompting supporters to make premature predictions of a golden future. Former player Alan Stubbs is even telling the press that Liverpool are jealous of Everton.
That statement would sound less absurd if it weren't coming from a club that hasn't beaten its local rivals once in the past seven years. Moreover, unlike 40 other clubs (the likes of which include Barnsley and Blackburn), Everton have failed to record a win at Anfield this century.
Even the £75 million sale of Romelu Lukaku to Manchester United hasn't taken the spring out of the Evertonian step. Fans couldn't spare a thought for the Belgian striker amid the fawning reverence given to the belated return of Wayne Rooney.
People might claim that the intensity of the Merseyside rivalry never really diminished, yet the modern failures of both clubs have certainly dented the importance of a fixture that once gripped the nation.
Liverpool fans' stance on Rooney could best be summed up as "bemused". Is it cynical to suggest he would have remained at Manchester United were he still considered integral to their ambitions and style of play? No, Jose Mourinho is nobody's fool.
Everton's response to accusations of mawkishness by the Anfield crowd was predictably to turn them back on Liverpool, claiming their fans were equally lachrymose when embracing the return of Robbie Fowler in 2006.
There are vague similarities. Both players were young, exciting and supremely skilful when they first burst onto the scene; Fowler arrived in 1993, and Rooney followed in 2002. The major difference between the pair is that Rooney left Everton for wealth, fame and success as soon as United came calling. Fowler, meanwhile, remained at Anfield and tried to achieve greatness with Liverpool.
Everyone knows how that ultimately turned out, although Fowler did help capture four trophies during his first eight years in a red shirt. Liverpool fans fondly recall the extraordinary abilities of a player nicknamed God, widely revered as one of the most gifted footballers of his generation.
Scoring in his debut against Fulham on Sep. 22, 1993, he scored his 100th goal for Liverpool just over three years later despite breaking his leg early in his career.
To put this in context, it took Michael Owen four-and-a-half years to reach his first 100 goals, while it took the undeniably gifted Rooney five years to do the same at United.
Fowler's 100 was achieved while the Reds were a peripheral presence in European competition and the domestic title race, while Rooney played on a team perpetually competing for Premier and Champions League success.
It often felt as though Fowler was the only thing separating Liverpool from mid-table mediocrity and permanent decline. When Owen arrived on the scene, he flourished under the more pragmatic style of Gerard Houllier.
Fowler's fitness and temperament were never really to the Frenchman's liking, but he still managed to make an important contribution to the treble cup success of 2001. His three goals against Leicester later that year were the last of his initial stint on the Reds.
At a news conference announcing his move to Leeds United, he cut a forlorn-looking figure -- indicating he never really wanted to leave Anfield. That's what made his 2006 return under Rafa Benitez so emotional for Liverpool faithful. It's also what makes the present-day Rooney comparisons unfair.
While Fowler only managed to net 12 goals following his return, these scores helped make him the sixth-greatest Liverpool striker in terms of goals scored. Some fans rank him even higher than that, given the speed with which he reached his century.
The light that burns twice as bright burns half as long. Robbie Fowler exemplifies this truth more than any British footballer since George Best, which is why many Liverpool fans still regard him with such awe.
Rooney, for his part, will add to his paltry Everton goal tally. He may even succeed where others have failed and bring a trophy to Goodison Park once more. Stranger things have happened.
Cynics will suggest that his return has more bearing on Everton's overseas brand than on the team itself, but in a way it's good that the old rivalry between the clubs is being rekindled.
Liverpool lagging behind the superpowers of English football is galling enough. If they were ever to look across Stanley Park and see a resurgent Everton overtake them, that would surely mark the end of Liverpool's current owners.
Such talk has emanated from Goodison many times before with little consequence, but if the optimism sparked by Rooney's return forces Liverpool to finally put their own house in order, then so much the better.
Every cloud has a silver lining -- even this one.
Steven Kelly is one of ESPN FC's Liverpool bloggers. Follow him on Twitter @SteKelly198586.