When ‘God’ returned to Liverpool in January 2006, neither club nor player had much to lose. All things considered, it went pretty well.
According to Rafael Benitez, it all began in a pub. It was May 2005 and Liverpool were celebrating their Champions League semi-final win over Chelsea, a victory that would take them to Istanbul for an occasion even more worth celebrating. Benitez was drinking in said pub, shoulder to shoulder with jubilant fans.
But he wasn’t the only Kop legend in the room that evening. Accompanying the manager in his revelries were two former Liverpool players, Steve McManaman and Robbie Fowler, both then playing — with mixed success — for Manchester City.
Benitez would note how Fowler treated himself only to “a soft drink”.
Something Fowler said that night — or something the Fowler-worshipping fans cheered and chanted in Benitez’s ear — planted a seed in the manager’s mind.
Because eight months later, the 30-year-old striker became a Liverpool player for the second time, shocking and delighting fans in equal measure.
“It is unbelievable, a dream come true,” Fowler said. “After I’d signed I sat in my car outside Anfield and was incredibly emotional.”
For one and a half seasons, an ageing Fowler enjoyed a privilege not afforded to most people: the chance to go back, to relive a better part of his life after four and a half years struggling with injury, goalscoring and popularity.
The reaction to Fowler’s return was, for the most part, one of amazement. Because while the striker was only 30 at the time, there were indications his career was on the decline.
In September 2005, Fowler was already giving worryingly nostalgic interviews about where things had gone wrong, while Fowler: My Autobiography, published that same year, expressed those regrets more explicitly.
“For all the decent people I’ve met at Leeds and Manchester City,” he wrote, “for all the wonderful fans at those two clubs, I know I should still be at Liverpool now.”
A back injury ruled Fowler out of several games in late 2005. Even when fit, however, he found himself behind Darius Vassell and a 33-year-old Andy Cole in the Manchester City pecking order. Bradley Wright-Phillips was also sneaking ahead.
For those not privy to that May 2005 conversation in the pub, there were no signs of an imminent return to Liverpool.
But then, in late January, the club announced that the deal was done. City had terminated Fowler’s contract, and the player had agreed a pay cut to return home.
“We have signed a player with so much passion for this football club and I think he will act as an example to every player here in how much he loves Liverpool,” Benitez said.
“It is a boost for the team, a boost for the supporters and a boost for Robbie himself. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a player quite so happy to be joining a club before.”
Clearly, there were both sporting and political aspects to the transfer. Liverpool’s strikers at the time — Peter Crouch, Fernando Morientes and Djibril Cisse — were indeed misfiring and in need of competition.
But the move was also a guaranteed crowd-pleaser. Liverpool were third in the table at the time, too far behind Chelsea to mount a title challenge, and seeing Fowler back on the pitch soothed some of those league frustrations. The legend’s return was almost as good as silverware.
Moreover, things almost got off to the dreamiest of starts.
In his second debut for the club, Fowler came off the bench to a hero’s welcome for the final half-hour against Birmingham.
With the game tied at 1-1 and heading into stoppage time, a long throw found its way to you know who. Instinctively, he flung himself into a bicycle kick and smashed the ball home to win it.
The linesman’s verdict? Miles offside.
For a few weeks after that, things didn’t go particularly well. Liverpool scored just four times over their next seven league games, with Fowler rotated in and out of the side.
When the returning hero finally did score in mid-March, during a 5-1 rout of Fulham, things picked up, and the Toxteth Terror began a scoring streak. Five goals in his final six starts of the season delighted the Kop and proved the old dog still had some bite.
The only downside to that first half-season was Fowler missing the club’s famous FA Cup run.
Having played a solitary game for City in the competition (scoring a hat-trick against Scunthorpe), he was denied the chance to appear for Liverpool on their route to glory.
On the positive side, that late-season scoring run earned Fowler a one-year contract extension, tying him down until the end of the 2006-07 season.
“This is fantastic news,” Benitez said. “Robbie has done really well and he deserves this.”
As a cherry on the cake, Fowler was also able to reclaim his old No.9 shirt after Djibril Cisse, its previous owner, was loaned out.
But despite the numerical familiarity, the Fowler of 2006-07 was not exactly the Fowler of old: it was simply an old Fowler. And with energetic new signings Dirk Kuyt and Craig Bellamy offering greater all-round contributions to the team, a no-longer-omnipotent ‘God’ found himself on the pews, rarely featuring for more than a few minutes at the end of matches.
The forward scored three league goals that season, all of them penalties against Sheffield United.
That season also brought a huge ‘nearly’ moment. In the second leg of yet another Champions League semi-final against Chelsea, and with the scores tied, Benitez sent Fowler on in the 118th minute.
‘God’ may have lacked the legs to start games, but he could always take penalties. This was his chance — his final chance, perhaps — to be a hero once again.
As it happened, Liverpool scored their first four penalties as Chelsea missed two out of three, sending the Merseyside team into the final after just seven kicks… before Fowler got his turn.
“I was down to take the fifth penalty in the semi-final, and plenty of people have asked me since if I was gutted that I missed out,” Fowler admitted three weeks later. “It would have been great, I was up for it, but it didn’t matter who took the penalty.”
You could write a book on that facial expression.
Somewhat heartbreakingly, Fowler had actually expressed hope of featuring in the final.
“I am still hoping with a passion I can go out on a high in the final in Athens, and play some part in bringing the cup back to Merseyside,” he wrote in the Daily Mirror, before Benitez omitted him from the squad altogether.
Fowler did, however, get to do exactly what he set out to do when re-signing for his boyhood club.
“One of my biggest regrets in football is that, in my last match before I left, I was taken off at half-time against Sunderland and never really had a chance to say goodbye,” he said in January 2006.
A season and a half later, on 13 May 2007, he played 88 minutes of the final league match of the season, a home tie against Charlton.
This time around, the Kop knew they wouldn’t be seeing ‘God’ at Anfield again and gave their striker the sendoff he deserved.
So while Fowler’s return had some big ‘nearly’ moments, it was ultimately highly satisfying. The striker contributed his fair share of goals, gave the fans something to sing about and gave himself that mythical post-breakup feeling of ‘closure’.
It wasn’t a perfect fairytale, but it made a lot of people happy.