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It’s 7:45 on a sweltering Thursday evening in Hong Kong and the Siu San Sports Stadium has just run out of lager. I will not be interviewing Robbie Fowler tonight.
Words by: Daniel Sandison
I can see him though. He’s 25 yards away, across a running track, warming up with the ‘EPL All Stars’ team who are in town for a charity match. He’s partially obscured by some old-fashioned dugouts like those off Italia ’90. His kit is a size larger than I remember, and white instead of red, but it’s unmistakably Fowler. He’s lobbing Saša Ilić (an EPL All Star, I shit you not) for fun, the floodlights are bouncing off a barnet doused in too much hair gel and when Steve McManaman – rolled-down socks, Copa Mundials – comes jogging over for a chat, there is that grin. The half-embarrassed, half-assured smile that has punctuated some of the finest moments of my 26-and-three-quarter years as a football fan.
The previous two weeks had been spent chasing my childhood hero through an array of agents, club representatives, and a shady friend-of-a-friend who “hadn’t seen him in a while” but would “defo ask around, lad.” After 14 days of hopeless correspondence I had eventually been granted my opportunity to chat to Robbie, 45 minutes earlier on the same humid Thursday evening. Thing is I had been on the other side of an island not famed for its free-flowing traffic and public transport links, and he would be leaving the country directly after the game. It wasn’t going to happen. So, here I was. Settling into a red plastic seat, sipping a reluctantly purchased Sprite and ready to watch my favourite number 9 again.
The last time I had seen Fowler in the flesh, he had been bidding farewell to Anfield for a second and final time. Charlton Athletic were visiting and Rafael Benitez had decided to call time on the Scouser’s swan song in front of his adoring public. He was replaced by Peter Crouch in the 88th minute and afforded the standing ovation that had escaped him when he first departed the club for Leeds in 2001. He looked content. Sad, but complete. He saluted The Kop, as he had done so many times previously, and embraced a manager who had given him one last chance. A wrong had been righted. The boyish charm hadn’t left him either, and it reared its head when in the 89th minute Liverpool were awarded a penalty. Fowler rose from the dugout and pleaded with the referee to allow him back onto the pitch to convert it. That was Fowler then, this was him now. 25-yards away from me, a little rounder, a little slower, but to a grown man perspiring heavily through his jeans and concocting a plan to find an off licence at half time, still the one true God.
Fowler to me, and to many others of my generation, had been a saviour. A flicker of hope rising from the ashes of Graeme Souness’ disastrous reign as Liverpool manager. An antidote to rose-tinted stories of Dalglish, of Heighway and Rush, the latter still lingering at Anfield in the role of ageing goal-machine and surrogate football Dad for Toxteth’s brightest young star.
He was a Scouser, of course, but he was one of us in more than just postcode. He looked clumsy in the tackle and argued with referees, he had a big, bandy-legged mate from Kirkdale with long hair, he looked at home in a tracksuit and he would. not. stop scoring. He was the local lad who did stupid things. He dyed his hair bleach blonde, he fought with Roy Keane and he cut up Neil Ruddock’s shoes. My Dad called him a “little fucking beauty” and “that fucking Toxteth tit” with equal and alarming regularity. He scored hat-tricks for a laugh, and then was incomprehensible and shy in post-match interviews. He supported the city’s striking dockers and failed to impress at international level. He inspired a generation of teenagers to raid the shelves of their local Superdrug for plasters to stick across the bridge of their nose. He was God.
It might be difficult to understand from a distance, but to some Fowler was the last glimpse we got of us in a Liverpool shirt. Steven Gerrard would go on to be rightly beatified for his achievements as club captain, and Jamie Carragher’s squawking leadership and Bootle roots would raise him above and beyond a melee of more naturally talented players in his midst, but neither of them ever pretended to snort the byline in front a rabble of enraged Evertonians. Both had been moulded into professionals by the time they broke into the first team, whereas Roberto Fowler seemed to have been plucked from a kickabout in the car park of a South Liverpool pub and dropped off at Anfield. He was Tinhead from Brookside in a pair of Puma Kings. He was your mate from school with unfathomable talent and no clue how to harness it. He was something else entirely.
Some decades later, and back in Hong Kong, ceiling fans whir tirelessly overhead in the roof of a stadium all too large for a fixture of such dubious calibre. I sit through twenty painfully sober minutes of football. The Robbie Fowler I knew and loved is sadly absent. In his place stands a man who couldn’t trap a bag of sand. Shots go whistling over the bar, into the rafters and onto the running track. He’s caught offside again and again and he’s marked out of the game by a lad who looks like he might split his time between playing football and competitively eating dim-sum. Fowler looks tired and almost as if the 14-hour flight to play in 30 degree heat wasn’t really worth it. I should understand, but I don’t. I can’t. I’m disappointed. I feel cheated. The Chinese lad in front of me, wearing an early ’90s home shirt with Bjornebye on the back, seems happy enough, but I’m gutted. “We’ll leave early and beat the rush. Get some cans on the way home,” I think, completing my transformation into both my father and Twiggy from The Royle Family. “I can’t be arsed with this.”
Seven or eight more uncomfortable minutes pass. Then something remarkable happens. Lager starts to appear. Beautiful, flat, cheap lager in translucent plastic cups is being passed around by excited expats. Like that fat lad from Charlie And The Chocolate Factory when he realises the river is made of chocolate, I am immediately roused from my melancholy. This changes everything. Someone is hurried to the bar and soon I am drinking something that tastes like Shandy Bass mixed with Dettol and it’s nothing short of marvellous.
Leading 2-0 thanks to a Robert Pires footballing masterclass that outstrips anything I ever saw him do in an Arsenal shirt, the EPL All-Stars are awarded a free-kick on the edge of the box. Stood over it are Paul Scholes, Robbie Fowler, and Steve McManaman, a trio last seen together wearing oversized England training kit and looking confused as to why Paul Merson was getting a game ahead of them. Scholes strolls away disinterested and Fowler duly scoops the ball effortlessly over the wall and into the top right hand corner of the goal, before he and Steve McManaman share an awkward embrace and high-five. I fight back real, actual tears and am immediately transported to the back row of The Kop on 15th February 1995. A Robbie Fowler goal secured a narrow victory over Crystal Palace, and seeing a man slap a teenager across the back of the head for booing – adding “We don’t do that here. Behave,” – had rounded off my first experience of Anfield and of Liverpool and Fowler in the flesh. I had been enthralled then, I still was now. Over two decades later.
Whether it was the bizarre moonshine concoction that I was now three pints invested in, or if it was the relief of seeing the net finally ripple I am unsure, but for the next 60 minutes Fowler came to life. You had to look a little harder to see it, but it was all still there. A hand lazily placed on the hip, an elbow jutting towards goal, the furrowed brow and half-arsed, sideways thumbs-up to a misplaced pass, that run.
The unmistakably Fowler run. The barrelling, clumsy dribble of a man who seemingly never truly has control of the ball, but somehow manages to retain possession. He was back. He wasn’t back, but I was half-pissed and he was running rings around a team again.