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Dec 4, 2009

Robbie Fowler: Natural born finisher

From a council estate in Toxteth to the sunny shores of Queensland, Australia - the career of Kop king Robbie Fowler has been quite a journey. One of the most natural finishers to grace English football, Fowler was revered as "God" by Liverpool fans, in awe of the composure in front of goal that helped him net 163 league goals to become the fourth most prolific striker in Premier League history.

Fowler burst onto the football radar as an 18-year-old and for 15 more years wowed spectators, combining a remarkable predatory instinct with an eye for the spectacular. From the simple to the sublime, Fowler was (and still is) an accomplished goalscorer.

He caught the eye after netting on his Liverpool debut in a League Cup clash with Fulham in 1993, but it was his five-goal haul in the second leg that really announced his arrival on the senior stage - after he had emerged as a red-hot prospect at junior level. He won the Golden Boot at the 1993 UEFA Under-18 European Championships as an England team containing Paul Scholes and Sol Campbell triumphed.

Fowler quickly began to set the Premier League alight, bagging 18 goals in all competitions in his debut season. Hauls of 31, 36 and 31 goals followed in the next three prolific seasons and he was rewarded by his peers with the 1994 and 1995 PFA Young Player of the Year awards. As part of Liverpool's "Spice Boys" - with Messrs Collymore, Redknapp, McManaman and McAteer, Fowler played his part in some of the best attacking football in the Premier League during the mid-90s.

He scored goals of all varieties, from every angle and distance and despite being just 5 ft 8 inches, had an impressive leap, with defenders fearing embarrassment at the hands of Fowler's aerial prowess. He netted his fair share of unforgettable goals, including a famous double salvo against Manchester United in 1995 - one a sweet left-foot strike, the other a delicious lob over Peter Schmeichel. Spectacular long-range efforts against Aston Villa, Arsenal, West Ham and a stunning 25-yard volley against Birmingham in the 2001 League Cup final also take pride of place in an impressively varied back catalogue.

There have been a plethora of memorable moments in the Premier League era and Fowler played his part in a number of them. On August 28, 1994, the 19-year-old striker established a record that still stands when he netted the Premier League's fastest hat-trick, in a devastating four minutes 32 seconds against Arsenal at Anfield. It was Fowler's second treble for the Reds - having scored one in only his fifth start against Southampton - and he went on to score seven more three-goal league hauls in his career, placing him second only to Alan Shearer (11 hat-tricks) in the record books.

Arsenal were the opponents and Fowler the chief protagonist again for what was one of the most commendable acts of sportsmanship the Premier League has seen. In the contest at Highbury in 1997, the striker found himself clean through and one-on-one with international team-mate David Seaman. He skipped over the challenge of the onrushing keeper inside the area and went to ground expecting contact that never came. A penalty was given, but Fowler immediately protested Seaman's innocence to referee Gerald Ashby, urging the man in the middle not to give the penalty. His remonstrations were rejected and Fowler, as Liverpool's designated spot-kick taker, took the penalty and saw his weak effort saved by Seaman, though team-mate Jason McAteer was on hand to score the rebound.

Many believed Fowler missed the penalty on purpose but this was not in his nature and he later explained: "As a goalscorer it's part of my job to take it and I wanted to score it. I tried to score. I never missed on purpose. It just happened, it was a bad penalty." Bad penalty or not, Fowler was given the UEFA Fair Play Award for his honesty and won the respect of players, fans and pundits alike. Sepp Blatter, then FIFA general secretary, said: "Your reaction in the penalty incident ... did you great honour. It is the kind of reaction which helps maintain the dignity of the game."

When examining Fowler's career his goalscoring exploits must take centre stage, but he was a player who courted controversy on a number of occasions. In a typically feisty derby encounter with Everton in April 1999, Fowler scored twice in a 3-2 victory but it was his provocative goal celebration after his penalty equaliser that got him in hot water. He simulated a cocaine sniff, borne out of false allegations about drug-use and taunting from Toffees' fans, along the goal-line, which saw him banned for six matches.

Earlier in 1999, he had caused a storm after Graeme Le Saux accused Fowler of directing homophobic comments towards him in a match between Liverpool and Chelsea. The striker claimed in his autobiography that he called Le Saux a "poof", to which the left-back replied: "But I'm married." Fowler then said: "So was Elton John, mate" and waved his backside at the left-back later in the game.

At international level, Fowler found himself, much like Arsenal legend Ian Wright, a victim of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Injuries often prevented regular availability but his main problem was the strength of the strike partnerships ahead of him. Fowler was unable to usurp the Alan Shearer/Teddy Sheringham combination and then at the 1998 World Cup a Liverpool striker broke the seemingly unbreakable pairing and forced himself into the team. Unfortunately for Fowler - missing from the tournament injured - it was young protégée Michael Owen who made his mark. Fowler played under four different England bosses and not one of them could get the best out of him on the global stage. His last international appearance was as a substitute against Denmark in the 2002 World Cup Second Round. His Three Lions' record reads 26 games, 7 goals.

Injuries began to take their toll on Fowler, most notably in the 1997-98 and 1999-2000 seasons, which served to heighten Liverpool's reliance on Michael Owen, who had overtaken Fowler as the spearhead of the Merseysiders' attack.

But in 2000-01, with club skipper Jamie Redknapp sidelined through injury, Fowler was handed the vice captaincy and it would prove one of Liverpool's most memorable campaigns in recent times. Gerard Houllier's side won a treble of cup honours with Fowler netting in both the League Cup and UEFA Cup final victories.

Despite enjoying a trophy-laden season, Fowler was finding himself increasingly reduced to a bit-part player and the one-time deity was appearing more mortal with every appearance. A training ground bust-up with assistant boss Phil Thompson highlighted Fowler's problems. Owen had become the key man, with Heskey his preferred strike partner for club and country. It was time for the Anfield "God" to move on to pastures new.

Leaving Liverpool was probably the biggest mistake of Fowler's career; not only because he departed a club at which he was adored, but because he joined a ship that exuded the grandeur of the Titanic but would suffer a similar fate. Fowler was the last of a string of marquee signing made by Leeds United and he joined a team packed with talent of the likes of Mark Viduka and Harry Kewell (in their pomp).

Leeds had reached the Champions League semi-final and the hype around their title chances seemed justified as they topped the Premier League table for more than half of the 2001-02 season. Fowler's £11 million capture helped bolster the attack but after some poor performances, David O'Leary was surprisingly sacked and Fowler suffered more injury problems as Leeds slid to a fifth place finish. After 15 goals in 31 games for Leeds and perhaps sensing the club's impending demise, he moved to Manchester City in February 2003 after a much-protracted transfer saga.

Fowler struggled to forge a partnership with Nicolas Anelka at City and he managed just two goals to the end of the 2002-03 season. The following campaign was more fruitful, with ten goals, but despite the presence of close pal Steve McManaman and a derby winner against Manchester United in 2006, was another wrong move. More injury woes and loss of form saw him drop down the pecking order and a move down the divisions seemed the most likely option.

But, in one of the shock transfers of recent times, Fowler was offered a top flight lifeline by Rafael Benitez and "God" made a sentimental return to his spiritual home in January 2006. While Fowler's anticipation and goal instinct remained, his lack of pace made it impossible for him to re-create his Anfield glory days and compete as a regular Premier League performer. He scored five goals to earn himself an extension to his short-term deal but was reduced to cameo appearances in the 2006-07 campaign, even missing out on a place in the 2007 European Cup final squad.

It was déjà vu for Fowler after leaving Anfield for a second time, as his career began to slide again. Peter Ridsdale, formerly chairman of Leeds when Fowler was signed, swooped for the striker in a major coup for the Bluebirds. But injures reared their ugly head again and he was on the sidelines for the 2008 FA Cup final against Portsmouth. His contract with Cardiff ended and he was offered a surprise final bite of the Premier League cherry by Blackburn Rovers boss and former team-mate Paul Ince on a pay-as-you-play deal. But out of shape, out of his depth and a shadow of his former self, Fowler played out his three month deal scoring no goals and making little impact.

Fowler is now playing out the twilight of his career as North Queensland Fury's inaugural marquee signing and captain. While many ridiculed the decision to relocate down under as the act of a desperate man, the striker has shown that while form is temporary, class is permanent - delivering some impressive A-League performances and netting nine goals in 16 games thusfar.

Fowler's career certainly makes for frustrating reading. Widely hailed as the best young English striker of his generation, his story is one of unfulfilled potential - particularly at international level - and premature decline. But in his prime at Liverpool, Fowler demonstrated his unmistakeable talent and ruthless goalscoring streak, reserving his place in the Premier League history books and ensuring he will always be regarded as an Anfield legend and one of the game's great natural born finishers.

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