On the spot: Robbie Fowler

A few years ago, Roy Evans was at Liverpool's training ground giving a television interview when he was struck on the shoulder by a football.

Somewhat stunned, Liverpool's manager of the day turned to identify the culprit. It was Robbie Fowler, 40 yards away and grinning triumphantly from ear to ear.

In the days when Fowler rarely missed his target, he could do no wrong. To Anfield's fans he was a god, and to Evans a gift from heaven who delivered 30 goals per season. That afternoon Evans simply shook his head, smiled, and then proceeded to answer the questions as if nothing had happened.

Fowler was having a wonderful time. He was young, single and fabulously rich. He changed from punter to racehorse owner and grew from being Ian Rush's understudy into arguably the finest striker in England. That, at least, was the opinion of Sir Alex Ferguson, the Manchester United manager who cursed the bitter rivalry between Anfield and Old Trafford. For as long as Fowler was a Liverpool player, he would be out of his reach.

Next, surely, was a permanent place in the England team. At the end of the season Glenn Hoddle would be taking his squad to the World Cup in France.

Fowler's intention was to secure the berth alongside Alan Shearer, but in February 1998 his luck changed so spectacularly that he spent the summer at home watching a Liverpool colleague steal the limelight in his absence. In Michael Owen, a new star was born.

A collision with Thomas Myhre, the Everton goalkeeper, left Fowler with a knee injury from which he believed he might never recover. Until this week Fowler had chosen not to reveal his deepest fears, though it seems his rare condition was one that, even today, can wreck a footballer's career.

"I had a serious problem and I honestly didn't think I was going to come back," the softly-spoken Fowler said. "It's quite common to damage the anterior cruciate ligament, but I had hurt the posterior ligament. I was only aware of one other player suffering the same thing. It was Julian Dicks, and it finished him."

Sadly for Fowler, his bad luck did not end there. After successful surgery and hours spent working tirelessly in the gym, he returned the following season only to develop an ankle problem so serious it required two operations. In all, he lost two years of his career.

Controversy also followed Fowler. He received a six-match suspension for making an obscene gesture to Chelsea's Graeme Le Saux and then, in response to unfounded rumours that he had a drug habit, pretending to sniff a white line at Anfield after scoring against Everton. The Football Association were not impressed, and neither were Liverpool.

More recently, an incident outside a Liverpool bar at 2am, when he was assaulted for the second time in 20 months, so angered Gerard Houllier that it seemed Fowler's Anfield days would soon be ending. Chelsea and Aston Villa had expressed an interest and Fowler feared the worst.

"There was a time when I thought all this was over," he said. "A lot of footballers say they don't read the papers, but if you go past a news stand and see a headline about yourself you are going to pick it up.

"I'm the first to admit that things weren't going well for me. I was still battling to get fit, I wasn't playing particularly well, and nobody was really saying anything to me. I was a bit lost. I didn't know what was happening. But then I had a few meetings with Gerard and he said he didn't want me to go. I was glad to hear it. Clubs had apparently come in for me, but Liverpool told them I wasn't for sale."

There were pressures outside Anfield, the attack being the perfect example of how difficult it was becoming for Fowler to live in the city in which he was born. "I did think about that," he said. "But I am here to play football and win trophies. You could be at any club and encounter trouble off the pitch."

"The manager was spot on. I was in the wrong place at the wrong time, but I have always tried to be careful. You don't read about me being out all the time. That particular night I was out because we were off training the next day. It was the first time I had been out over the New Year because we had had so many games, so I was celebrating with my fiancee and a few friends."

"You are not in the game for long, so when you've been out for two years you tend to treat your career differently," he said. "Nowadays football is much quicker. I noticed the change even in the time I was injured.

"It's important to look after your body. You can't afford to go out living the life of Riley, drinking all the time. The fitness of the modern players is frightening, and if you want to be a top player you've got to be fitter than most."

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