Liverpool fans once called him God and could even forgive him a goal tonight, writes Stuart James The Guardian
How mischievous that the League Cup draw should not only have granted Robbie Fowler the opportunity to go back to Anfield, but also meant the Cardiff City striker's return to Liverpool coincided with Halloween. Not that Fowler could haunt Liverpool if he tried. Indeed, there is so much affection for the 32-year-old among Liverpool's supporters that Cardiff's captain Darren Purse is probably right when he suggests Fowler would be forgiven for scoring the winner tonight.
Nicknamed God among the red half of Merseyside, Fowler can do no wrong in the eyes of Liverpool fans, with his homecoming expected to deliver an ear-piercing ovation that is likely to leave many of the Cardiff players feeling like extras making up the numbers on a film set. The adulation is born from an extraordinary record that reads 183 goals in 369 appearances during two spells with Liverpool, although the statistics are not imprinted on Fowler's psyche.
"He didn't come into [this] club as a prima donna," said Purse, recalling Fowler's arrival at Ninian Park on a free transfer in July after he was released by Rafael Benítez, the Liverpool manager, following the Champions League final, when he had sat in the stand. "He just walked in and said 'hello' to the lads and that's what he's all about. He's not about saying, 'Look at me, I'm Robbie Fowler'. He's saying, 'Look at me, I'm one of the lads'. That's what he's like. He's a really great bloke to have at the club.
"People often get the wrong idea about players. They think they are going to come in and upset the team spirit we've got around the place. Robbie came in and has fitted in really well and he's just one of the lads. He's a very likeable bloke. He likes to have a little joke, to play a few tricks on a few of the lads and, especially when things are a bit low - we're not having the best of times in the league at the moment - he's a fantastic person to have around."
Hailed by the Cardiff manager, Dave Jones, as "the biggest signing this club has ever made", Fowler has taken time to find his feet in the Championship although six goals in his last eight appearances are more in keeping with expectations. Jones had not earmarked Fowler as a possible target in the summer; instead a chance meeting in a Florida restaurant while on holiday proved to be the starting point for talks that brought the former England striker to South Wales. He has nursed Fowler through matches hitherto, with the forward only completing 90 minutes for Cardiff on four occasions this term as he seeks to improve fitness levels as well as develop a partnership with another former prolific Premiership goalscorer, Jimmy-Floyd Hasselbaink. Should Jones withdraw Fowler before the end again tonight, the applause would be deafening, although there is no sense that the Cardiff manager is in sentimental mood.
"Playing football is Robbie's job," insisted Jones. "Personal things don't get in the way. Yes, Robbie played for Liverpool for a long time but he's been back there before with Man City. When you get emotional your mind becomes clouded - but that won't happen to Robbie. He wants to get on and do his job. It will be a special occasion and he will have his family and friends there, but he plays for us now and that attachment with Liverpool ends once he steps off that team bus."
Trevor Sinclair is not so sure. The 34-year-old Cardiff midfielder, who played alongside Fowler for Manchester City and England, believes his team-mate will find it hard to be so pragmatic about playing at the home of the club he joined as an 11-year-old. "I think it will be a difficult situation for Rob to be in because he has obviously got so many good memories at Liverpool and, deep down in his heart, if it was his choice he would still be at the club," Sinclair said.
Benítez has since admitted Fowler is "still good enough to play in the Premier League this season" although the signing of Andriy Voronin, together with plans to bring in Fernando Torres in the summer, dictated there would be few opportunities at Liverpool.
Fowler might easily have retired at that point but Sinclair claims that an interest in horse racing, as well as a considerable property portfolio, would not have been enough to stimulate someone who "loves football".
Those who have played alongside Fowler for Cardiff this season will testify he no longer has the same sharpness when getting about the pitch but his football brain continues to buy time inside the penalty area where he remains, in Sinclair's words, "a fantastic finisher". Indeed that might well be his epitaph, with many Liverpool fans, much like Sinclair, able to recall a favourite moment during a career that is replete with goalscoring memories. "I was only telling the story a couple of weeks ago to someone that I remember his first England Under-21 game, which was against one of the Eastern bloc countries away," said Sinclair.
"Within 35 seconds Robbie Fowler had turned a bad cross from me into a goal with a diving header from outside the box. That was the first time I played with him and there was the big smile you still see now when he scores." It just might not be quite so wide should he score tonight.