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'I wasn’t even on the bench – I’d been bombed out completely'

Robbie Fowler on the beginning of the end of his first stint at Liverpool.

Robbie Fowler pictured during his Liverpool days.
Robbie Fowler pictured during his Liverpool days.
Image: EMPICS Sport

THE FOLLOWING PASSAGE is an extract from Robbie Fowler: My Life In Football.

I threw myself into training sessions, doing extra routines and practice on free-kicks and long-range shots into an empty net. One practice session, Phil Thompson came and stood behind the goal to watch. Wanting to impress him with my accuracy, I leathered a beauty, high into the net – no way any keeper, anywhere, would have got a hand to that one! But Phil Thompson jumped back like he’d been shot and started screaming at me that, with the ball travelling at that pace, I could have seriously injured him. My mistake, in retrospect, was to challenge him on this. Instead of apologising and defusing the incident there and then, I laughed at how upset he was and reminded him that there was a net between him and a potential trip to casualty. That was that. Thommo trooped off, I carried on with my shooting practice and the whole thing was forgotten.

Or so I thought. Even though Thompson was a little more remote than usual, neither he nor the manager gave me any indication that anything was amiss. We travelled down to Cardiff in good spirits, speculated about how weird it would be, playing in the first-ever ‘indoor’ game (the Millennium had a retractable roof, which was to be closed against the rainstorm forecast for Sunday’s game). But the real storm happened inside our changing room: Gérard announced the team, and I wasn’t in it. To add insult to injury, I wasn’t even on the bench – I’d been bombed out completely. I was stunned. Horrified. Heartbroken. Embarrassed. All of these emotions shot through me, one after another, as the message sank in and the implications hit me.

Why? That was the question I found myself asking as the game kicked off and Liverpool raced into an early lead. Why am I not out there, captaining that side? The truth was staring me in the face, of course, but I couldn’t see it. Maybe I was in denial, but it simply didn’t enter my head that a juvenile incident on the training ground had escalated into a disciplinary matter. Houllier hadn’t even been there, so how would he know about it? How would he be able to judge the rights and wrongs of it? I sat there trying to trace things back, trying to recall any conversation or interaction between myself and the manager that might have been taken the wrong way, but I was coming up with nothing. I had no idea whatsoever why I’d been dropped.

soccer-fa-barclaycard-premiership-manchester-city-v-liverpool Gerard Houllier pictured during his time as Liverpool manager. Source: EMPICS Sport

I found out the next day, when Gérard called me into his office. As I went in, he was doing that routine of shuffling through papers, his glasses halfway down his nose, acting like he was a bit distracted – then he suddenly looked up and came out with it: he dropped me because I’d been disrespectful to Phil Thompson. Phil had told him that I had deliberately tried to humiliate him in front of the squad, by kicking the ball at him in training. Thommo was adamant that I’d been trying to hit him and that Houllier had to make an example of me. I remember standing there, thinking, who’s the boss, here – you or him? Gérard told me that, until I apologised in person, I would not be considered for selection. I told him that this was all my arse – there was nothing to apologise for. If I’d wanted to hit Thompson, believe me, I was pretty sure I could have done so.

There was a horrible stand-off for the first few weeks of the 2001–02 season, during which I missed the curtain-raiser against West Ham, the Super Cup win in Monaco (our fifth trophy in six months!) and the Goodison derby. It was an awful period, professionally, knowing I had done nothing to justify this prolonged punishment yet slowly realising, if I was to come through it, I had no option but to grit my teeth and apologise. Like I’ve said, I like Thommo a lot and given my time again, I would have just apologised for the near-miss straight away. We’re both stubborn Scousers and there’s no doubt, even after it was all over and dealt with, the spat created an awkwardness that was hard to shift.

Around this time, I started hearing and reading stories about other clubs coming in for me. At different times, Arsenal and Man United were supposed to have made enquiries, but my agent George told me the only serious offer had come from Chelsea. Clubs were getting wind of the fact that I was not starting games and having kept up my scoring ratio whenever I played, it was a back-handed compliment that I was in demand – just not at my own club.

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But then the day came that put everything into perspective: another of the clubs supposedly in for me, Leeds United, were our visitors for a midday kick-off. It was an odd one – even though I wasn’t remotely sure whether I was coming or going, I was in the starting 11, possibly because Emile Heskey was injured.

We started badly and Leeds went in 1–0 up at half-time. It seems mad to say this now, but Leeds were the Man City of the era, spending big money on all the best players as chairman Peter Ridsdale gambled on returning this sleeping giant to the big time. They had brought in Rio Ferdinand for a world record fee for a defender and added Robbie Keane, Mark Viduka, Lee Bowyer, Seth Johnson, Dominic Matteo, Jonathan Woodgate, Olivier Dacourt and Danny Mills, all for top money.

At half-time, Houllier started to go through the motions of a rousing team talk, but his voice seemed to be getting weaker and weaker as he grew more and more short of breath. He just stopped talking, nodded for Phil Thompson to continue and left the changing room. We went back out, played a much better second half and – putting all modesty aside, as per – I was 95 per cent responsible for our equaliser, with Danny Murphy running in for a simple header into the empty net. I reeled away and sprinted down the touchline, still feeling I had a point to prove, wanting to remind the manager I still had plenty to give – but he wasn’t there. Even then, that struck me as highly unusual. Gérard was one of those managers who was always pitch side, analysing the game and looking for the little details that might turn a draw into a win.

As soon as we got back into the dressing room at the end of the game, Thompson explained to us why Houllier was absent: he had suffered some kind of seizure at half-time and been rushed to hospital for emergency surgery. The next 24 hours were going to be critical and we should all prepare ourselves for the worst. No matter how revered Bill Shankly may be in Liverpool, he was wrong about one thing: football is not, and never should be, a matter of life and death.

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Robbie Fowler: My Life In Football: Goals, Glory & The Lessons I’ve Learnt is published by Blink Publishing. More info here.

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