For all of his portfolio as a property magnate Robbie Fowler never did get over being stripped of his title deeds to the Anfield penalty areas. No matter how much wealth he has accumulated the desolation over his banishment from Liverpool rang true in the striker's autobiography. Incredulity honed his joy at the move that took him back to the club last Friday.
His career has withered on any other soil. Gérard Houllier did not so much sell him as send him into exile and, even taking the fitness problems into account, he has made little of what are notionally the best years of a footballer's career. He was just 26 when he went to Elland Road, but Leeds got a mere 14 goals for their £11m. While Manchester City enjoyed a better return on a £6m outlay, it took three years for Fowler to score 27 times.
Injuries to knee, hip and then back choked off the flow of goals. In the mystical view of fans, though, he will be restored by donning Liverpool's colours once more. That act of faith may not be misplaced in the short term when the atmosphere in the stadium, as Birmingham City could discover tomorrow, will be buoyant enough to refloat any career for a while. There will be fervour, too, over seeing a perceived wrong being righted belatedly.
It is commonly argued that Houllier off-loaded Fowler as part of an ideological compulsion to dynamite the entrenched Anfield culture. The Frenchman could argue that he secured an outstanding fee for a forward whose physical condition was so unreliable, but the logic of the strategy begins to falter when the aftermath is considered. Those funds from Elland Road were squandered on El Hadji Diouf, who came at a cost of £10m, with just some £2m recouped so far from Bolton.
Djibril Cissé cost £14.1m and Rafael Benítez knows he will have to accept a far smaller sum when off-loading him. The attacker and Diouf both retain a mobility that was stripped from Fowler long ago, but that athleticism has been of far less benefit than Houllier supposed when he decided to purchase them. In Sunday's FA Cup tie at Portsmouth, Cissé was only effective when restricted to putting his pace to basic use on the flanks.
Fowler, by comparison, has been an opulent talent. Benítez must have been captivated earlier this month when he watched the striker round off City's 3-1 win over Manchester United. Many players could have accepted the opportunity, but there was a sheen of precision about Fowler. As with so many of his finishes, the ball was placed as far away as is possible from the grasping fingers of a goalkeeper, into the side of the net just behind the far post.
Many forwards could outrun Fowler but few can outclass him. While Benítez has to accept that the signing will be a failure if the player's body buckles yet again, the realisation did not deter him because he has scant options. Liverpool lack the means and, despite being Champions League holders, the current cachet to lure striking virtuosos such as Andriy Shevchenko. Fowler, on modest terms, is the sole attainable icon.
His appeal to the Anfield fans has never wavered. While provocative behaviour is bound to be punished, there is a roguish wit to a footballer who can react to Everton supporters' chants about drug use by pretending to snort the 18-yard line. The deepest root of a popularity that was always greater than even Michael Owen's lay in the fact that he could not only score on 171 occasions for Liverpool but also do so while displaying well-rounded technique and imagination.
Those gifts have left a shallow impression, with a goal as a substitute in the 2001 Uefa Cup final victory about as high a peak as he has touched so far. Now he has a part in Liverpool's defence of the Champions League. If that should happen to entail a meeting with Houllier's Lyon, Fowler will be more galvanised than he has been since his precocious beginnings.
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