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“God” as he was called, Robbie Fowler’s emergence gave Liverpool fans so much hope to end their title draught back in the mid ‘90s. An academy boy bringing the Premiership back to Anfield, that was the dream of every Reds fan.
Though it did not turn out as planned, Fowler still made an impression most will find hard to match. In 369 appearances over two spells at the club, he amassed 183 goals, mostly with his powerful left foot and unique ball-striking technique. That hat-trick against Arsenal, the quickest in the Premiership then, was the highlight of his career – which in a way, sums up what little he has made of it.
A pair of FA and League Cups, along with a UEFA Cup he lifted as co-captain, during the Reds’ 2001 treble winning season was almost all Fowler could show for his professional football career. He was often marred by recurring injuries, and did not even make the World Cup 1998 due to the emergence of another young forward prodigy by the name of Michael Owen, of course. (So much forward talent in the academy back then! Now there’s only Adam Morgan, and, Samed Yesil?)
Due to the fact Houllier preferred a Emile Heskey-Owen forward line, Fowler fell out with the gaffer at the back end of 2001 and moved to Leeds United for £11million. Anfield’s prodigal son could have been the man to seriously threaten Gerrard’s supremacy at the top of this leader board, but even a return to the club in 2006 under Benitez did him little to usurp the current skipper’s standing.
The emergence of Michael Owen back in the late ‘90s just before Gerrard himself was one that captured the imaginations of Liverpool supporters. Another academy product, after Fowler, this wonder kid of that generation spent eight years at the club, scoring 158 goals in 257 games. Pacey, deft first touch and unerring finishing ability, Owen helped Liverpool to the unique treble of 2001, with vital goals in the UEFA Cup and FA Cup finals. His two late goals against Arsenal that won that FA Cup was one that lived long in the memory.
Owen managed to grab 20 goals in all competitions for a total of five seasons, which included 28 goals in two consecutive seasons (2001/02 & 02/03). All this led to him landing the 2001 Ballon d’Or, first footballer from Liverpool, as well as the PFA Young Player of the Year 1998, two Golden Boots for the 1997/98 and 1998/99 seasons, and a place in the PFA Team of the Year 1998.
Owen seemed destined to continue to plough the goals and amass more titles for Liverpool, maybe even finally helping them win the title, which would have sealed his status as one of the greatest Liverpool players of the Premier League era, if not the greatest. However, he chose the route of fame and money of Real and refused to extend his contract, eventually leaving for Real in a £8million plus right-midfielder Antonio Nunez. He would go on to play a major role, albeit from the subs bench, at Real, while Milan Baros and Djibril Cisse replaced him and led Liverpool’s front line in their 2005 Champions League triumph.
Subsequent relegation with Newcastle and an ill-advised move to bitter rivals Man Utd saw him retire as neither a legend for any club, but merely a great player for England.
Liverpool’s affinity with great-turned-overly-ambitious strikers continued with their signing of Spaniard Fernando Torres from Atletico Madrid for £20million, a club record then. His debut season was a bright one, becoming the first player to grab at least 20 league goals for Liverpool since Fowler.
His searing pace allied with his great dribbling and finishing ability was reminiscent of Owen, but what such comparisons hid was his surprisingly good aerial ability, not least helped by his height. A complete striker he was, Torres combined with Gerrard to devastating effect in the 2008/09 campaign.
However, Torres could not click with strike partner, and eventually the likes of Peter Crouch, Dirk Kuyt, Andriy Voronin and Robbie Keane would come, as his back-up, and go. This individualism would admittedly see his talents rewarded, as he was part of the FIFPro World XI and PFA Team of the Year two years running, in 2008 and 2009.
Torres, like Owen and to a lesser extent Fowler, felt he was bigger than Liverpool and forced a transfer to Chelsea, netting the Reds a whopping £50million in the process. To make things worse, his proclamation that Chelsea was “a bigger club” than Liverpool severely angered Reds fans. That, and the fact he did not win any trophies during his time at the club, would see Torres’ challenge for Gerrard’s greatest BPL-era throne short-lived and abrupt, especially with fans viewing him as the villain now. Liverpool fans now certainly enjoy to see him flop at Chelsea, as much as when they first saw him skin Tal Ben-Haim and finish low to Petr Cech’s bottom corner in the Blues’ net during his Premier League debut.
And yet another forward, with the potential of being the best, courting trouble with the Kop is Luis Suarez. After his move from Ajax for the new club record of £22.8million, he was the ideal man to sooth Liverpool fans after Torres’ acrimonious departure. Settling almost immediately, he scored on his debut off the bench against Stoke, won the League Cup last year, and finished top scorer this season with 23 league goals.
A creative, deep lying forward that defines the new age centre-forward managers desire. Gone are the days when Owen and Torres’ pace was the only thing that strikers needed. Suarez’s mesmerizing dribbling combined with his intelligence on the ball is what puts him high on the list of assists and goals. His immense work-rate also sees opposing defenders get harried off the ball by his dogged closing down. Capable of playing across the front-line, he can also strike a pretty decent free-kick, even from distances that once seemed impossible.
Liverpool fans loved the way he dived at then-Everton boss David Moyes’ feet after he scored during the Merseyside derby, a swipe towards the current Man Utd boss’ pre-games comment regarding Suarez’s “diving”. His sometimes ambitious goals – see Norwich away two seasons prior – made him a Kop hero in his short time at Anfield so far.
For all his great technical ability, Suarez has his well-documented wild streak too. Though the Patrice Evra racism saga could be disputed over the lack of concrete evidence, the bite on Branislav Ivanovic in front of the whole world was there to see. Adding the middle finger offence at Craven Cottage, he has been suspended for a total of 19 games in just two and a half seasons! That is not playing 20% of league games already.
Right now, the Uruguayan still yearns for a move away from Anfield. He cited the lack of love from the English media as his main reason for an exit, of course at a time when Real’s interest was high. When Real would not meet Liverpool’s £50million asking price for Suarez, and Arsenal then bid £40million and £1 (yes, one pound over), he suddenly changed his statement of intent to one of playing for a team in the Champions League. Suddenly, the English media’s hate for him is gone, and he has no qualms of playing for Arsenal. Hypocritical? Certainly.
For all his brilliance, Suarez, if he stays and continues to shine at Anfield, he has a very good chance of finally overtaking even the homebred skipper as Anfield’s greatest. If he decides to push for a move away, this summer at least, he will instead usurp Torres’ position as the villain of the Kop. For now, at least, he is, in the eyes of many a Red, just a great footballer with zero loyalty.
Suarez would also do well to learn from the mistakes of Torres and Owen, in that success does not necessarily come by leaving the Reds for a “bigger club”.