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When the ball hit the net

Natural born goalscorer required, must be heaven sent...

Robbie Fowler, number nine shirt, Liverpool football club,Early 1990s, it would’ve been, when Bill went to Melwood to interview Don Hutchison and came back raving about Robbie Fowler. Like me, Bill wrote for the football magazine 90 Minutes, and Don Hutch had just broken into Liverpool’s first team. Interview in the bag, Bill was about to head home when he saw an unfamiliar young figure in training kit do something astonishing.

In the space of a few spellbinding seconds the kid smacked a ball from the edge of the box against the crossbar and volleyed the rebound straight against the bar again…and again…and again…and again. Like a viral marketeer’s dream. “Who the fuck is that?” said Bill. “Robbie Fowler,” said one of the groundsmen, matter of fact. “Gonna be some player. Does that all the time.”

Fowler of course, and unlike Liverpool’s current crop of banjo-swingers, was hitting the woodwork on purpose. Oh for such an accomplished predator now: that uncanny and instinctive ability, without pausing, without thinking, not just to find the back of the net but bury the ball right in the corner whatever the angle, every time.

Over the years I got to interview Fowler twice myself. The first time was for another football mag called Goal, summer 1995 at the Copthorne Gatwick Hotel, West Sussex, where he was with the England Under-21 squad prior to a trip to Portugal for a European Championship qualifier. Trevor Sinclair and Nicky Butt were there too. They’d all had the morning off. They’d been out sightseeing. They’d come back late. The interview was, if not quite a car crash, then a series of handbrake turns in a particularly muddy field.

Robbie Fowler goal magazine coverThe night before, Fowler’s Liverpool had beaten Sinclair’s QPR 1-0 at Anfield courtesy of a Neil Ruddock goal that prompted a bizarre celebration involving half the team writhing on their backs in apparent agony. “It’s from a fillem,” explained Robbie, with his peroxide hair. “Excuse me,” interjected Sinclair, “When he says ‘fillem’ he means film.” “It’s a fillem,” continued Fowler, “called The Execution.”

Sinclair again: “It’s a load of bollocks to be fair, isn’t it?” Fowler: “It’s a fillem called The Execution and we were all watching it on video. This fella gets shot in the face and obviously his face is hanging off and he’s trying to breathe and he goes… [contorted face, horrible croaking noise]. That’s what we did last night. Neil Ruddock invented it.”

Mid-interview, to a hotel waitress delivering a tray of soft drinks Fowler enquired, “So, are you from round here or local?” Later, when the conversation turned to pre-match nerves and great expectations, he said simply: “You ask anyone at the club – I never, ever get nervous.” There followed a photo-shoot with esteemed NME snapper Derek Ridgers. “Do you want us to look mean?” asked Fowler, curling his top lip like Sid Vicious as the other two sniggered. We couldn’t use half the pictures, there would’ve been murder.

Like most top players Fowler had an uneasy relationship with the press. Not long after the Goal article he and Steve McManaman were stitched up by a lad’s mag when the interviewer went for a slash halfway through, left the tape recorder running and used the subsequent ‘outtakes’ in his piece.

The second time I interviewed him, five years later in summer 2000 back at Melwood for Liverpool FC’s own matchday magazine, he was older and wiser, less mischievous and a lot more agreeable. He picked his nine favourite goals, including the debut strike at Fulham in a Coca-Cola Cup second-round match in September 1993. I showed him the match programme from Craven Cottage that I’d just so happened to bring along. He’d never seen it, I said he could keep it.

The other eight goals, for the record, were: his stabbed-home second against Newcastle in the legendary 4-3 at Anfield in March 1996; the thumping opener against Manchester United at Old Trafford on Cantona’s overhyped return from suspension in October 1995; his half-volley from the edge of the box against Aston Villa in the FA Cup semi-final of late March 1996, again at Old Trafford; the swerving drive against Villa again, after he’d backheel-nutmegged Stan Staunton, at Anfield earlier in March the same year; his screamer in off the bar against Arsenal at home in August 1999; the third of the historic hat-trick against the Gunners at home in August 1994; his flashing header past Blackburn goalie Tim Flowers at Anfield in September 1995; and the last-minute equaliser in the Merseyside derby of April 1997.

“I like scoring against Everton,” he said. “It was a real mudbath and we were losing 1-0. Stan Collymore got the ball out on the left and put in a great cross and I met it full on the volley from close in. My first against Everton at Goodison Park. Yeah, I enjoyed that one.” Not nearly as much as the rest of us did. What wouldn’t we give to have someone like him knocking them in right now.

Robbie Fowler with his first hat-trick programme Vs Fulham

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When the Ball hits the net

 

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