Few players have such an affinity with a club as Robbie Fowler does with Liverpool FC. When the striker affectionately known as God announced his shock return to the Anfield side last week, Reds fans' prayers were answered.
The second coming was complete on Wednesday when for the first time in over four years Robbie Fowler ran on to the Anfield pitch as a Liverpool FC player. A banner reading "Fowler God 11 Welcome back to Heaven" was unfurled at The Kop end. Liverpool may have drawn with Birmingham City FC, but the sight of their prodigal son back in a red shirt mattered most.
If awards were handed out for the most unexpected deal struck during the January transfer window, Liverpool manager Rafael Benítez would surely win the prize. Nobody had predicted the signing of Liverpool's former goalscoring hero on a free transfer from Manchester City FC until the end of the season. Fowler, born and bred in the city, said moving back to Liverpool left him feeling "like a kid waking up on Christmas morning every day". Since the news was announced last Friday, many Reds' fans have been in a similar frame of mind.
Few players have endeared themselves to the supporters in quite the same way as the 30-year-old did during his first spell at Liverpool. His 171 goals in 330 appearances earned him the nickname 'God' from his legions of admirers. For in the modern age of mercenary footballers, Fowler, as well as being one of the game's best natural finishers, remains above all a fan. Liverpool fans identify with the local lad from one of the city's poorer areas made good: the stereotypical 'Scouse scally'.
Goals and gestures
His appeal is manifold, forged by events such as scoring five goals in his second game against Fulham FC in 1993; his four-minute hat-trick against Arsenal FC in 1994; his attempt to convince the referee not to award a penalty when felled by David Seaman against the same opposition in 1997; and his wearing of a t-shirt supporting the local dockers' strike during a UEFA Cup Winners' Cup match the same year. He is also remembered for less commendable gestures such as his snorting goal celebration alluding to cocaine after scoring against local rivals Everton FC in 1999, and his taunting of Chelsea FC's Graeme Le Saux, falsely rumoured to be homosexual. Fowler made good copy and was rarely out of the headlines.
Fowler in exile
He left Anfield in November 2001 following a run of injuries, poor form and a bust-up with assistant manager Phil Thompson, but his transfer to Leeds United AFC did not bring about the career boost he was hoping for. Further off-field problems, difficulties with his fitness and Leeds' financial crisis led him to join City for around €9m in January 2003. Again, the switch failed to fully restore Fowler's fortunes, though a recent FA Cup hat-trick for City and a crucial goal against bitter rivals Manchester United FC put him back on centre stage. Even then, however, Fowler could not have dreamed about the move he said he had been praying for ever since he left Anfield.
Throughout that time, the mutual affection between the Liverpool fans and Fowler persisted. He was in Istanbul to support Liverpool as they won the UEFA Champions League last May and while at Leeds and City he continued to taunt fans of United with four-fingered and most recently five-fingered gestures alluding to Liverpool's European Champion Clubs' Cup successes. That is why Liverpool fans continue to worship and identify with Fowler their fellow fan, with the boyhood Everton supporter, now the richest footballer in England who famously owns a reported 85 houses. In Fowler, they see one of their own - the cheeky player they perhaps might themselves have been, had they possessed his prodigious striking talent.
For it is talent more than sentiment that persuaded Benítez to secure Fowler's services. His recent goals show the talent is still there, while, for all his fitness troubles at City, Fowler was still their top scorer last season. As Fowler's friend and former team-mate at Liverpool and City Steve McManaman wrote this week in the Daily Telegraph: "
Liverpool fans understand it's not about sentimentality. They know that Robbie's the type of centre-forward they need ... They need a sniffer-type centre-forward, and that's what Robbie is."
"He's a different kind of striker to what we have at the club," echoed Benítez. "He's got a wealth of experience and he gives us more attacking options. We have signed a player with so much passion for this football club and I think he will act as an example to everyone here in how much he loves Liverpool." Fowler, who took a significant pay cut to rejoin the club, knows he will have to prove himself all over again if he is to earn a new contract at the end of the season. But as his return on Wednesday proved, there really is no place like home.