As gambles go, Robbie Fowler knew this was a big one.
“I wouldn’t say it was make-or-break,” he says, “but it wasn’t far off!”
As a player, Fowler’s legacy is secure. They call him ‘God’ at Liverpool, where he won five major honours, scored 183 goals in 369 appearances and was twice voted the PFA Young Player of the Year. His 163 Premier League goals, meanwhile, place him seventh on the all-time list. He is, and will always be, one of English football’s most celebrated centre-forwards.
Management, though? That’s something new entirely. Different challenges, different experiences, different demands.
A different world.
Fowler has waited a long time for his chance in the bearpit. Overlooked time and again by Football League clubs in England, the 45-year-old had wondered whether people’s perception of him, a perception shaped largely by what he feels was unfair media coverage of him as a player, was counting against him.
“I think people had a certain impression of me,” he says. “And it wasn’t the right one.”
He perservered. He completed his coaching badges like everyone else, achieving the coveted UEFA A-license in 2017, but when jobs came up, and when he made it clear he would be interested, clubs looked elsewhere.
That was until last spring, when the call came from Australian A-League side Brisbane Roar. Fowler jumped at the chance.
“That was all I wanted – a chance,” he tells Goal. “I feel like I was getting rid of a stigma, if you like. I was showing people how passionate and dedicated I am to my coaching career.
“If you go overseas for your first job like I have, you’re not playing around are you? I don’t want to sound egotistical, but I think it showed a bit of bollocks.”
He can say that again. Fowler had experience of Australia as a player, having spent a season with both North Queensland Fury and Perth Glory towards the end of his career, but his only prior managerial stint had been a brief one, as player-coach of Muangthong United in Thailand eight years ago.
And Brisbane was no easy gig, either. They’d finished second from bottom in the A-League last season, winning just four out of 27 games and conceding 71 goals in the process. They were not a great side at all.
And so together with his coaching staff, led by his assistant, the former Everton and Manchester City midfielder Tony Grant, Fowler set about rebuilding. Fifteen new players were recruited, with a focus on attitude and mentality, as well as skill and technique. He wanted hunger, dedication, a team that would believe in itself.
“It was a fresh start for everyone, not just us,” Fowler says. “We knew there were a lot of issues to sort out. We had to bring that winning mentality, get people pulling together and believing in what they were doing.”
The start was tough. Brisbane won just two of their opening 10 matches, a quirk of the fixture list meaning the majority were played on the road.
“We only played our fifth home game on January 11,” laughs Fowler. “When you’re trying to bed in a new team and new ideas, that’s far from ideal!”
Still, the signs were positive. Brisbane, Fowler says, were playing well even if results weren’t showing it.
And as the Christmas decorations came down, the Roar began to roar.
They were fourth in the table when football was suspended due to the Covid-19 shutdown, having picked up more points than any side in the league since Christmas.
Fowler had picked up the manager of the month award for both January and February, and his side had won each of their three games in March prior to the league’s postponement.
The leaky defence has been fixed. Brisbane have conceded just 24 goals in 22 games – eight of which came in two matches. “I knew we needed to build from the back,” says Fowler. “Which may have surprised a few people given I’m a striker.”
Most pleasing for Fowler has been the buy-in from his players, who have responded well to his training methods, his demands and his firm-but-fair man management.
“Since Christmas, our mentality has shone through,” he says. “We’ve shot up the table, and we’ve handled the pressure.
“With only 11 teams in the league, it means that you play a lot of games against teams in and around you, so you know a defeat can see you fall down the table. That puts extra pressure on each game, but the lads have responded to that superbly.”
He cites a few examples. The win over third-placed Wellington Phoenix in January, a comeback victory against Adelaide United a few weeks later. They dug deep to earn a draw at home to an in-form Perth Glory in February, and saw off Newcastle Jets behind closed doors in their last fixture.
“Any time I asked the lads to deliver when there was a bit of pressure on us, they pulled it out,” Fowler says. “That tells me something about the character of this team.”
McDonald joined from Western United in January, and has netted four times in nine games since, but his work with the club’s younger players – including five teenagers given their debut this season – has stood out just as much.
“My goalkeeper, Jamie Young, is another I would mention,” Fowler adds. “His attitude is as good as anyone I’ve seen.
“I never played him at the start of the season. But what I loved was that he went away, worked on all the things I’d spoken to him about, and he became a better keeper. In the end, he got his chance six or seven games into the season, and he’s been absolutely outstanding.
“If I’m looking for an example to show to the players of what you need to do, how you need to train, your attitude, all that, then the likes of him, the likes of Tom, Scott, they’re the ones to look up to.”
It is clear that Fowler remains as competitive and as in love with the game as ever. He admits that reading comments from Phil Moss, the president of Football Coaches Australia, stating he shouldn’t be appointed had given him an extra desire to prove people wrong.
“What was laughable about that is that he’s an English fella who went over to Australia at a young age and got a job,” Fowler says. “Now he’s saying that clubs shouldn’t be appointing foreign coaches!
“But I’ve always had that. I’ve always had people writing things about me, all through my career. And I’ve always used that in terms of ‘I’m going to prove you wrong, I’m going to show you’. It’s no different as a manager to when I was a player.”
For now Fowler, like the rest of the world, must wait. The impact of the coronavirus is being felt everywhere. Brisbane’s players and staff have been stood down by the club as Australian football waits for a definitive restart date – August has been touted in some quarters. Fowler, at present, is back home with his family on Merseyside, awaiting news.
Whatever happens, he can reflect on a positive first 12 months in management.
The wait, it appears, was worth it.