Fifteen years have passed since Robbie Fowler’s January 2003 transfer from Leeds to Man City, a protracted saga that resulted in City chairman David Bernstein stepping down, aghast at what he saw as reckless spending by the club.
And Fowler, who joined for an initial £3million, rising to £6million, wasn’t the only former Liverpool legend who ended up at City that decade.
Eight months after ‘God’ descended upon Maine Road, the striker was reunited with Steve McManaman, who arrived from Real Madrid hoping to rebuild an on-pitch understanding with his former team-mate.
Over the following few years, two more former Reds, David James and Dietmar Hamann, ended up in City colours. Though both did fine, it would be fair to say neither were marquee signings.
Today, things are different. When Liverpool host Manchester City this Sunday, Pep Guardiola’s team won’t contain any over-the-hill former Liverpool players at all. No Glen Johnson, no Lucas Leiva, just Raheem Sterling, one of the league’s best performers and a player Liverpool really never wanted to lose.
It’s a sign of just how much things have changed – for both clubs.
Looking back on that period of the early 2000s, it might seem as though Fowler and McManaman found a home at City only by virtue of a shared dislike of Manchester United – a kind of ‘ABU’ understanding, perhaps.
That almost certainly wasn’t the case, of course, but with both players largely stinking out the shiny new City of Manchester Stadium between 2003 and 2005 (Fowler lasted six months longer), you’d be forgiven for wondering what did take the two Scousers to Manchester.
Massive wages? Sure, though Kevin Keegan seemed genuinely convinced the duo could make successes of themselves at City.
“First and foremost the thought of [Fowler] playing with Nicolas Anelka is a dream pairing for me,” Keegan said in January 2003. “I like my forwards to be different and they are certainly different.”
In August of that same year, new City chairman John Wardle said the club were showing “real ambition” by signing the 31-year-old McManaman…and Sunderland’s Claudio Reyna.
Unfortunately, that confidence didn’t translate into performances. Fowler rarely reached peak fitness, while McManaman was criticised for his poor attitude.
To make matters worse, the players embarrassed themselves and the club when the News of the World revealed how the pair had (together) attempted to seduce a woman on a drunken night out in Essex. The players, always more Spice Boys than model Citizens, reportedly spent £50,000 trying to block the story.
Fowler and McManaman might have been more successful at City had circumstances been different, but their situation always looked like a kind of compromise: here were a couple of players with strong connections to the North West, no longer welcome at Liverpool and obviously unfit for Everton or Man United. The solution was always City.
That may partly explain why some ageing former Liverpool players moved to the blue side of Manchester in the 2000s, but there’s a pretty obvious explanation why it won’t happen again anytime soon.
Raheem Sterling, a Liverpool player between 2010 and 2015, is currently the top goalscorer for City, the Premier League’s best team. In November, he scored late winners in three consecutive matches.
Needless to say, Sterling is now a better footballer than late-career Fowler, McManaman or Hamann were. And that’s hardly surprising: a £49million signing should outperform a £6million one. But while comparing the performances of players 15 years apart may be relatively futile, looking at the changing relationship between Liverpool and City is not.
One wouldn’t expect to see an ageing former Liverpool player in the City squad these days, what with the club’s limitless finances and expanding trophy cabinet. But it’s still surprising – and perhaps a telling indication of Liverpool’s present distance from City – that the process of hand-me-downs has actually reversed in direction.
The evidence is there: just a season and a half ago, both Kolo Touré and Mario Balotelli were Liverpool players. Granted, the latter was on loan at Milan for the 2015-16 season, but these were players who, a few years prior, had both been surplus to requirements at City. Each player moved to Liverpool a less valuable commodity than in his City heyday.
James Milner, despite taking a mean penalty, could be lumped into that category too. Used sparingly throughout his City career, Milner effectively exchanged places with Sterling in 2015 – a switch that, based on recent performances, few Liverpool fans would say reflects well on the Merseyside club.
By contrast, Sterling is the only senior player in recent years to move in the other direction, from Liverpool to City, and he is a world away from Keegan’s 2000s band of Scouse retirees. Moreover, City didn’t even need an intermediary like Leeds or Real Madrid: Sterling was prised directly from Liverpool with cold hard cash.
It’s not just Sterling’s performances of late that will rile Liverpool fans; it’s his status as a symbol of shifting powers along the M62.
Sterling’s best years are ahead of him, not behind, and if City swoop again for Liverpool players, it will be for those of Sterling’s calibre, not Fowler’s.
Featuring only two current players.
We’ll always love Arsene.
Big Sam has been very Big Sam again.
Do Arsenal fans really deserve their reputation?
John Ruddy is still having nightmares.
We are very big fans of the Playmaker award.
Featuring some surprise names.
Sergio Aguero has finally made it in.
Anything to get the player you want.
From playing for his college to playing in Europe.