By Jack Sumner
We go back 15 years and to Liverpool for the latest in the ‘My Favourite Match’ series. This game belonged to one man. A 21-year-old Robbie Fowler was just two goals shy of his century for Liverpool. ‘God’ went onto surpass the hundred mark in quite emphatic style. He got four as Liverpool pulverised Middlesbrough. You can follow Jack on Twitter @Sumna88 and read more from him and his team at Our Beautiful Game.
One of my earliest memories of a football match, the exact events of which I was recently reminded of after watching a programme entitled Liverpool’s 100 Greatest Premier League Games. It only made number 63 on the list, but for nostalgia and sentimental value it ranks as a good shout for one of my favourites!
I hadn’t expected to be going to Anfield that day. It was the Saturday following my eighth birthday, and after a morning spent playing football in the garden at a friend’s house, trying to re-create my favourite goals and celebrations – I think at the time Gazza’s against Scotland in Euro ’96 was my most prolific, but in that garden I scored hundreds of tap-ins before diving to the ground screaming ‘FOW-LER!’ – I got called inside to speak to someone on the phone. It was my dad asking me what I wanted to do that afternoon. Liverpool were at home to Middlesbrough in the late kick-off, so my plan would most likely have included watching Final Score before listening to the game on the radio. As it happened, my old man had arranged for me to go the game with my uncle.
On the way there in the car, I remember that the talk was of Robbie Fowler needing just two more goals to reach a hundred for Liverpool. To my eight-year-old mind I don’t think it quite sunk in as to how significant that was. Fowler was already a hero at Liverpool by then, and he was my favourite player by a country mile, but looking back now it amazes me to think that he was only 21 at the time. It felt like ‘God’ had been around for years, and I guess really he had, having cemented his place in the first team at the age of 17. To score that many goals for a club at senior level, at that age, is some achievement. Consider that the sensational Lionel Messi scored his hundredth goal for Barcelona last year, at the grand old age of 22.
Sitting in the Kop end before any Liverpool game is special. I may be biased, but I honestly don’t believe there is an atmosphere anywhere that beats Anfield when they play ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ before kick-off. To hear that crackle over the PA system as everything goes quiet for a second, and then the song kicks in and thousands of fans hold their scarves aloft above their heads and sing along. Even watching it on television it’s spine-tingling, but being there is immense, and although that wasn’t the first game I ever went to, Liverpool at home to Middlesbrough in December 1996 is my most potent early memory of that experience.
What ensued, was not only a good day to be a Liverpool fan, but a great day to be a fan of Robbie Fowler. Middlesbrough took the kick-off and came right out-of-the-traps, ploughing bodies forward into the Liverpool half, but after winning possession on the edge of the 18-yard box Liverpool were abruptly able to turn defence into attack. A swift counter-attack spearheaded by Stan Collymore culminated with the ball falling to Fowler in front of goal, and with just 29 seconds on the clock, God stuck the ball in the back of the net for the 99th time in his professional career. Fowler ran for the corner flag, where he stopped and sarcastically checked his wrist in amazement at the time; Steve McManaman followed suit, the pair shrugged their shoulders and trudged back to the centre circle.
Collymore should have got on the score-sheet shortly thereafter, but events just seemed to conspire in Fowler’s favour. As Collymore’s effort ricocheted back off the inside of the post, Fowler found himself with the ball arriving at his feet again, only this time roughly six-yards out and staring down at an empty net. Despite losing his footing, Liverpool’s cult hero rolled the ball into the open goal with perhaps the easiest finish his fabled left-foot ever had to produce; an ironic way to score your 100th goal for the club, it was as though it was presented to him on a plate. The second goal preceded an equally memorable celebration, as Fowler lifted up his shirt to reveal a t-shirt with the words “Job’s A Good ‘Un” written in marker pen, then walking round the pitch in his typical joker fashion spending an entire minute showing the message to his team mates, something that in today’s game would probably warrant a booking. For the record books also, Fowler had achieved his century one game quicker than the club’s all time record goalscorer, Ian Rush.
Before half-time Liverpool grabbed a third. Collymore’s free-kick stung the hands of Boro’ keeper Gary Walsh, and the ball was headed in by Liverpool’s Norwegian full-back Stig Inge Bjornebye.
In the second-half Middlesbrough were to pull a goal back. That came on 75 minutes when Michael Thomas – who as anyone who has ever seen the film Fever Pitch will know, will go down in history for goals he scored against Liverpool – scored at the wrong end by turning in a Craig Hignett set piece. But this was Fowler’s day, and no ex-Arsenal legend was going to spoil it. Two minutes later he latched onto a ball from McManaman, and began a new century of goals by claiming his hat-trick, this one a composed strike to the right of the advancing Walsh.
Then with five minutes left, the result beyond doubt, and Fowler already taking home the match ball, the man with the legendary white nasal strip scored his fourth of the evening. Released by Collymore – who was fantastic on the night himself I must add, being involved in four of the goals – Fowler evaded two Boro defenders and after wrong-footing Walsh with a dummy, dinked the ball over the diving goalkeeper’s head.
Liverpool 5, Middlesbrough 1. Robbie Fowler 4. And he celebrated his fourth goal by taking a bow in front of the Kop.
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