Beneath the deity-like exterior of Merseyside legend Robbie Fowler lies a common-ground shared with all footballers, everywhere, be they Sunday league or UEFA Champions League.
That’s right: the man they call 'God' is exactly like you and I.
What drives this 33-year-old Townsville resident and native Liverpudlian (two cities which could be no more different) is a boyhood love for scoring goals and the sight of seeing the ball hit the back of the net – perhaps one of the purest feelings still existent in football today.
It is, after all, the concept of loving the game itself that is perhaps lost amongst an emerging generation of fans for whom the true meaning of football is buried beneath paraphernalia, media and all manner of excesses.
And the fact that a man who could easily have chosen the much more convenient route of remaining in the lower tiers of English football in the twilight of his career has instead dragged himself to literally the other side of the world for a new challenge with A-League outfit North Queensland Fury.
He claims his ambition and drive are as great as they have ever been and that his arrival in Australia to train long before his new team-mates is a testament to a desire for success, albeit of a different kind to that which he enjoyed in a glittering career with Liverpool.
'God' Fowler may be, but what characterises him are some distinctly human feelings that swirl together to present a unique and fascinating voice that contains a mixture of ecstasy, wisdom, reflection, pain, determination and regret, buried beneath a delightful Scouse accent...
Goal.com: We’ll start off with the burning question: do you think Liverpool have what it takes to catch up with Manchester United?
Robbie Fowler: I think so, though if you’d have asked me three or four weeks ago I’d have said it’s going to a bit of a struggle. But the way they’ve turned the season around after winning away against Real Madrid, now they’ve got every chance. They went to Old Trafford and absolutely mauled Manchester United - the momentum is with them and hopefully they can carry it through, though it will be tough.
Goal: What is it about Liverpool in Europe that makes them so much more potent and consistent than in the English Premier League?
RF: It’s hard to put it into words - it’s a bit of a confidence thing. You go into games and sometimes lose stupid points at home and then in big games, there’s less pressure on the players. When they play at home against the lesser Premier League teams, sometimes they struggle to break them down when they sit back and invite them to attack. The good teams that they play against though, like Manchester United and Real Madrid, tend to open up and attack.
At home, there’s always the danger of attacking so much that you leave yourself open, so you become a little bit cagey at times and don’t want to concede - and when you do concede it’s a tough ask to score twice and get back into the game, particularly the way football is now.
Goal: Is it perhaps a case of Kop pressure at times and the expectations of Liverpool fans getting to the players, particularly at home? Did you ever feel it as a striker?
RF: I don’t think it’s necessarily the fans but because you play for Liverpool, whether it is fans or press, you are expected to beat lesser teams simply because you’re Liverpool – that’s just the way it is.
Goal: It’s a totally different environment for you now in Australia though. Are you relieved to be away from the pressures of top-flight English football?
RF: Football’s football. I’ve come to do as well as I can, my drive and ambition is as high as it’s ever been – I’m certainly not here to relax in the sun.
Goal: Are you frustrated that your motivations have been questioned on arriving in Australia, when it was only a few months ago that you were playing in the English Premier League?
RF: I’ve got no doubts about what I can do. I don’t need to prove to or tell anyone how much football means to me – I’ve shown it by coming here. People have their own prerogative and opinion and mine is as it stands.
Goal: You were involved in Liverpool’s 2007 UEFA Champions League semi-final against Chelsea. They won on penalties that day – are you backing them to overcome the ‘Hiddink factor’ this time around?
RF: The momentum is with Liverpool and Chelsea are not as good or confident as they were. Obviously the games against Chelsea are always tight and one or two goals will always separate them - hopefully they’ll be in Liverpool’s favour but I’m quietly confident that they’ll progress.
Goal: Speaking of tight score-lines, what was the secret behind your almost magical ability to appear in the penalty area at just the right moment? Is it something you learned or is it just inbuilt into you?
RF: I could sit here and say it’s natural but I worked at scoring as well; I used to work most days before or after training. It’s a case of being at the right place and right time; you’ve got to be clever with your movements and runs.
But I think I’ve got a bit more to my game now than when I started – I’m more than a goal-scorer to be fair but people don’t pay too much attention the other parts of my game.
Goal: You’ll obviously need to adapt those aspects of your game to a completely new football environment in Asia.
RF: Coming here is a new challenge. It’s difficult for me to say I’m going to play in the Asian Champions League - we’ve got to get on the training pitch and work on a lot of things, being a brand new team with new players coming in, and it will be a difficult task for us. We’ve got to get our own house in order before we shoot our mouths off. The manager here [Ian Ferguson] has put together a good squad and he’s very happy with what he’s got.
Goal: We’ve heard a lot about the heat potentially affecting you in Townsville – a topic perhaps overworked by the media down here. However, you’ve been having your heart rate monitored and taken a rather scientific approach to your preparation. Is that a new experience for you as well?
RF: With coming over to a hot country, it’s a case of acclimatising and I’ve come earlier and gotten into a climate chamber to acclimatise quicker than normal. By the time the season starts hopefully I’ll be firing on all cylinders. The fact that I’m coming in now, months before the season starts, proves how dedicated I am – I want to do very, very well.
Goal: Have you been impressed with the setup and level of professionalism at the North Queensland Fury so far?
RF: I knew a lot about the club’s structure beforehand, as I had spoken at length with the manager and chairman. The manager is fantastic, the facilities and the grounds are first class and I’ve been heavily involved with the club so far.
Goal: Back to the slightly colder surroundings that are Merseyside for a moment; is it true you were a boyhood Everton fan? How did that square with playing for the Reds?
RF: When I was very young I used to watch them but I was at Liverpool when I was 11 years old – I’ve been a Liverpool fan from then on. Obviously I grew up watching very, very good Everton sides but I always knew deep down Liverpool were a better team.
Goal: Jamie Carragher mentioned in his autobiography that he left Melwood to join the Everton ranks on a couple of occasions in his teen years. As a boyhood Evertonian, did you ever do the same or feel the urge?
RF: Before I was 14 years old I had a chance to sign for Everton but being at Liverpool, I was quite a loyal lad and because they had raised me I just didn’t want to jump ship. At that time it would have been easier to get into the Everton first team but I stuck to my guns and am happy with decision I made!
Goal: What was life like on Merseyside? Being a working-class area, do you ever wonder where your life would have taken you had it not been for football?
RF: Ever since I was a kid I’ve worked hard and wanted to be a footballer. You can point at any city on the map and there will be suburbs on that map with bad names or a reputation for not being the best of places; like where I was from (Toxteth) but it’s not as bad as made out to be.
But we had two great football clubs right on our doorsteps – from an early age football was bred into us, like Rugby League and Aussie Rules are over here. We’re I’m from, it was predominantly football; it was on television all the time and that’s just what I wanted to do.
Goal: Given the comparative lack of football culture here in Australia, do you see your role here also as a promoter of the game?
RF: I don’t see it like that but if they want to use me to promote it, that’s great! When the Australians put their hand to anything sport they are generally very good, so hopefully football over here will take off. From when I was in Sydney two years ago, I’ve noticed a difference in the game as I’ve been following it. It would be really nice if it grew while I was here though.
Goal: Of course, Ian Rush took on a similar – albeit much smaller role – when he played as a guest with Sydney Olympic in the National Soccer League a few years ago. Have you spoken to him about Australia?
RF: To be fair, I totally forgot he was here, even though I knew he had played with Olympic! I will ask him when I speak to him next and find out – it just totally slipped my mind!
Goal: When you joined Leeds United you were billed as the final piece of the jigsaw. How disappointed were you that things didn't work out there?
RF: Without a doubt we had some very good players and when I went there we were top of league and at the turn of year we beat West Ham to go top. Obviously I got injured and during the year I played 24 games and scored 12 goals. People sometimes say I was a failure – but have they actually sat down and looked at the statistics, including the fact that I was injured for a lot of the time?
Goal: OK, and now for the one we’ve all been waiting for: What was really behind the most rock-n-roll football celebration of all time - the sniffing the line?
RF: It was just a bit of a jovial thing! Especially in the UK, you get stick off fans all the time and I was obviously in the middle of pitch, where what I liked doing was scoring and celebrating. Looking back, it was probably not the greatest thing to do! But it was something I felt strongly about and I answered the fans who were giving me stick at the time.
Goal: Is jovial a word that characterises you as a footballer and team-mate?
RF: Obviously football’s a very serious game and at times you do need to be serious. But you need a bit of a release at other times.
Goal: In that case, what do you think of Fabio Capello's ultra-disciplined reign as England boss? Similarly light-hearted characters like Jimmy Bullard and David Bentley might not necessarily be suited to it.
RF: Obviously every manager is different and every manager wants to bring his message. At the same time, not every player is the same and some react better to discipline and some with leeway. Obviously I can’t answer for everyone under Capello but the fact is that they are getting some good results.
Goal: Your England career never reached the heights of your club career. Why was it that you weren’t as prominent for your country?
RF: I really, really don’t know. I should have had more caps but obviously I can’t answer it. I don’t know where to begin! I’d scored almost 100 goals before I got my first cap and nowadays you score once and you’re looking at about 30 or 40 caps.
The games that I played I thought I did well in though. I went to European Championships and World Cups and I did everything in terms of playing and scoring for my country, so I achieved a lot of what I wanted to with England in that sense.
Goal: Having been part of England setups before, can you give us some insight into the sort of pressure and expectation faced by the team? Can you feel the eyes of the country watching your every move?
RF: Obviously the pressure from the press and fans you feel. On paper the English Premier League is by far the best in he world, so the England players are very, very good. The first eleven can beat any team in the world hands down but sometimes it’s a case of some teams not being able to gel. The way England are playing, they’re working that out and they are playing better. It’s been a long time since they’ve won [a trophy] and the players that they’ve got are all fantastic.
Goal: So you don’t see the prominence of foreigners in the English Premier League as a problem?
RF: I don’t think so. If you look at the England team, any one of them would get into the top sides in the world. Obviously if you take away the first eleven, you would find problems but that first eleven is good enough.
Goal: Who was the best footballer you ever played alongside?
RF: I’m probably a little bit biased but Steve McManaman was a very good mate of mine and he was unbelievable at Liverpool. I’ve been fortunate enough to play alongside great players like Paul Gascgoine, John Barnes and Steven Gerrard. But the likes of McManaman, when he was on song at Liverpool, he would simply pick up the ball and run the length of the pitch with it.
It’s a sign of how good he was that he went to Real Madrid - at the time best club side in the world, picking up a little Scouse lad! He was the best I’ve played alongside.
Goal: What did you make of Gerard Houllier’s reign? He has largely been held responsible for your exit from the club.
RF: His emphasis was probably more on not conceding – a mentality of “you don’t concede and don’t lose”. You can stand here and talk about the good things and bad things about him but the fact is that in one year he won five trophies, which is unbelievable.
[On being forced out of the club]: There was a little bit of talk about going places but I never ever wanted to leave Liverpool. I felt I had no choice in the end and I left with tears.
Goal: Do you regret leaving the club that first time?
RF: I wouldn’t call it a regret – that’s a strong word – I’ve probably got few regrets in my career and life but I look at it from other angle: if I didn’t leave, I wouldn’t have been able to come back four or five years later.
I thought the time had passed me by but to get the actual chance to go onto that Anfield pitch again, to put it into words is so hard. I sat in the car when I signed the contract and without telling a lie, I had a little scream and started crying! As I’ve said to people, I was like a kid waking up on Christmas morning.
Goal: So there’s no bitterness towards Houllier?
RF: I’ve seen him loads of time since and what happens happens - life’s too short for holding grudges! I’ve fallen out with others in past and spoken to them as well. I’m sure Gerard would feel the same way about me.
Goal: And the same applies to Graeme Le Saux? You famously made gestures to him on the pitch mocking his rumoured homosexuality by bending over and pointing to your backside.
RF: I was a young lad and people do stupid things to me on the pitch and obviously I do stupid things on pitch. It was one of those spur of the moment things. I’ve seen him a lot since, and we’ve got no problems with each other. Things happen and I hate to use that old cliché but what happens on pitch stays there and things are different in the bars and dressing rooms afterwards.
Goal: You yourself were never far away from controversy or the press. What do you make of all of the rumours about the criminal underworld and its links to football? A whole chapter was dedicated to you in Graham Johnson’s ‘Football and Gangsters’.
RF: I’m speaking from my point of view: I never had any dealings with anyone and I don’t know anyone who has but I can’t say that such links did or didn’t exist.
Goal: Has there been a particular highlight during your career so far?
RF: I wouldn’t say there’s been one moment. Obviously you win trophies, and that’s a highlight. I love football and I love going out and playing football – my whole career has been one big highlight. I was lucky enough to win a few trophies but I just love football; seeing ball hit back of net is massive and a great feeling. If I weren’t playing professionally I’d play Sunday league!
Goal: Is there a future for you in the game when your playing days finish though, perhaps in a coaching capacity?
RF: Essentially I do want to stay in football but for the time being I want to concentrate on playing – maybe in a few years.
Goal.com: Robbie, thank you very much for your time and best of luck in Australia!
Chris Paraskevas, Goal.com