Monday's media

Monday 3 December 2001

The Guardian

Fowler's modern English usage struggled to express itself here yesterday in a fast but featureless match which left Leeds United loping along behind Liverpool and Arsenal at the top of the Premiership and Fulham in the lower half of the table.

The £11m which David O'Leary has just invested in bringing Robbie Fowler from Anfield to Elland Road will surely bear more fruit than was evident in this game. Apart from a typical snap shot, saved 16 minutes from the end, Fowler's qualities were largely seen through the positions he took up and the runs he made.

The striker's lack of regular first-team football at Liverpool was all too apparent but he did finish more strongly than he began. "Robbie needs a good run of 10 or 12 games," O'Leary observed. "He has so many qualities that will make us a better team."

Few would deny that. For all his latter problems at Liverpool, Fowler remains, potentially at least, one of the best penalty-area predators in the Premiership.

His introductory appearance against Fulham would have profited from better passing around him. After so long at Liverpool Fowler must have felt like a senior academic who had wandered into the D stream.

At the back Leeds looked as well organised as usual, with Rio Ferdinand again outstanding and Danny Mills reiterating his versatility by switching from right-back to centre-back in place of the injured Dominic Matteo. Elsewhere, however, their football was ragged around the edges.

"We're a passing team but today we kept giving the ball away," O'Leary complained. "Fulham had a lot of possession but that was because we were giving it to them."

This was partly true, though Jean Tigana's side were often at their most effective when Sylvain Legwinski and Steed Malbranque were mounting attacks from the edge of their own penalty area and consistently opening up the wings for Luis Boa Morte or Rufus Brevett.

For the home team a draw is often regarded as two points dropped but Fulham were entitled to take greater satisfaction from a result which extended their present unbeaten league run to six matches. That they were unable to find sufficient inspiration near goal was due as much to the efficiency of the Premiership's most parsimonious defence as shortcomings on the part of Tigana's strikers.

Had Gary Kelly not got back to clear a shot from Boa Morte, which had beaten Nigel Martyn, off the line on the quarter-hour the match might have opened up sufficiently for Louis Saha and Barry Hayles to put added pressure on Ferdinand and Mills.

As it was, a couple of delightful turns by Saha had first Mills and later Ferdinand staring at thin air. Neither, however, actually led to a shot at goal, which rather summed up the match.

After half-time, when Fulham started to get more men forward and at greater speed, Leeds found themselves coming under sustained pressure for the first time, with Alain Goma a frequent threat in the air at set pieces.

After 69 minutes Boa Morte's long free-kick from the right found Goma leaping beyond the far post to head hard towards the top near corner of the net and only Martyn's agility in palming the ball clear denied the match the goal for which it pined.

Such are football's awkward little ways that the probability of a scoreless match was evident from the moment some one revealed that Fulham and Leeds had never previously drawn 0-0 at Craven Cottage. Add to this O'Leary's decision to pack his side with strikers and a barren afternoon was perversely guaranteed.

It might have been different, for Leeds that is, if Lee Bowyer had not still been recovering from a hamstring injury. Bowyer's ability to run at defences and cause sufficient disruption for chances to be made is badly missed. Alan Smith, moved out of the central striker's role to accommodate Fowler, often came into movements from the right, Bowyer-fashion, but without making a similar impact, apart from the first-half foul on Malbranque which saw him add a yellow card to the previous weekend's red.

With Harry Kewell again a peripheral influence and little of significance coming from David Batty and Seth Johnson in midfield, the only consistent support Fowler enjoyed came from Mark Viduka who despite his recent travels trying to get Australia to the World Cup finals, put in an admirably industrious performance.

Viduka's personal contest with Goma and Andy Melville gave the game a sub-plot which promised more than the main script. With 11 minutes remaining, the Australian striker neatly turned past Goma before laying a pass into the path of Smith, who drew a sharp save from Edwin van der Sar.

A goal for Leeds then would have been grand larceny but at least Fowler would have made a winning start.

The Telegraph

Leeds United are not saying whether the fire brigade had to be called to cut Robbie Fowler out of the Liverpool shirt he has worn since he was 13, but they are prepared to promise him a run of games in his new jersey and so enhance his chances of starting alongside Michael Owen for England at next summer's World Cup.

More than 90 minutes will be needed for us to get used to seeing the quintessential Scouser in Yorkshire livery. Liverpool supporters can be forgiven for taking a long walk in the country yesterday as one of their Merseyside brethren made his debut for one of their club's closest rivals. Some Leeds players were equally fazed. The subtleties of Fowler's forward play were mostly lost on David O'Leary's men as a mediocre performance against Fulham left them four points off the lead, held by Gerard Houllier in absentia.

One fizzing shot with negligible backlift and a couple of scrambled efforts in an often rancid match were among the few embellishments in Fowler's rebirth as a Yorkshire terrier. But the novelty of seeing him transported into an alien environment was worth the admission price alone. So, too, was the dexterity and angled running that promises to bring fresh dimensions to a forward line often characterised more by bravado and brawn.

The promise of a regular starting place for `the most natural finisher in the Premiership' (copyright: everyone) was one of the few items of good news for Sven-Goran Eriksson as he returned from potential death-by-bingo-ball in South Korea. O'Leary, the Leeds manager, is talking about "10 or 12 games" as the sequence required to rescue Fowler from the debilitating effects of having to make so many cameos in his later years at Anfield. "I think that's what I've got to do, without a doubt," O Leary affirmed.

With every commentator from here to Tokyo scrutinising his spending, O'Leary needed no second invitation to defend his considerable (and mostly impressive) dealings in the transfer market. Fowler first: "For a lad who's only been training with us for two days, I'm delighted with him. I think he needs a run of games now: 10 or 12 under his belt to bring him up to speed with the way we train, and enable him to know the other players.

"His movement, his work-rate were excellent today. If we get him right he'll be an excellent buy because it's all there. A couple of times today he ran across the line and could have been fed but never got the ball. I've been hearing rumours for two years that Leeds were going to buy him. When Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink left I tried to get him but couldn't. I'm delighted to get him now at an excellent price for us. I just think we can get the best out of him. Eddie Gray said to me just before the kick-off: `I never thought I'd see Robbie Fowler in a Leeds shirt'. And that's where we've moved on."

As Fulham reflected on another afternoon of poor finishing, of chances squandered in a game almost without incident, O'Leary was preoccupied with the grander scheme of Leeds' ambitions. "I've heard this stuff about us spending £100 million," he said. "It's the biggest load of rubbish out. I've spent £60 million. That's a lot of money, but these aren't lads at the end of their careers. I've already had bids for Rio Ferdinand. That £60 million is worth a lot more than that to us.

"In the summer I took stick for not spending money. I was offered Robbie Fowler on Saturday night and the price wasn't right. It's not my money but I still like to spend it right. I know I've got more money to spend when the right player comes along. I know the plc board will be impressed with Fowler, and they're the ones I've got to impress."

Not that anyone could have been impressed with Leeds here. Their passing was profligate and too often negative; their full-backs were too willing to launch the ball aimlessly while Alan Smith, sent off against Aston Villa last week, again picked up a needless caution in his temporary post on the right side of midfield - "stupid tackle," remarked O'Leary.

But the core strength of Leeds is that obdurate defending (14 goals conceded in as many games) will always come to the assistance of impoverished forward play. Gary Kelly's clearance off the line from Luis Boa Morte was typical. Nigel Martyn's slapped clearance from an Alain Goma header was further evidence of defensive coolness.

Another clean-sheet maintained, O'Leary was scanning the horizon: "If we can get this court case (involving Lee Bowyer and Jonathan Woodgate) out of the way in the next 10 days, it'll be great. It'll be great to get it out of the club's system one way or another. I still think Woodgate and Ferdinand could play together for England in Japan." And so on to the championship race, now headed by Liverpool and Arsenal: "I won't be kidded by Alex [Ferguson] saying United are out of it. If they string a run of games together and get it right they can form a great challenge."

Which left time for a brief observation from Fulham manager Jean Tigana: "I'm sure the team is progressing. But we need more. I need to find a solution in the final 40 yards so we score more goals." Leeds thought that and pinched Fowler, no longer an adornment on a bench and still, maybe, an accomplice for Owen in that other white shirt.

The Mirror

Robbie Fowler missed a late chance to snatch a dramatic win and ended up on his backside - rather like Leeds are in danger of doing this season.

Stuttering Leeds have blown their lead at the top of the Premiership after a depressing run of just one win in their last seven league games.

New £11million signing Fowler was supposed to give Leeds' title chances a shot in the arm but yesterday they looked a team desperately short of confidence, ideas and quality.

Leeds were outplayed by Fulham, who dominated from start to finish but are far too happy to play pretty football when they should be more direct.

In contrast, poor old Fowler hardly got a look-in as his new team-mates seemed to have forgotten that he had arrived, such was the lack of service.

But Fowler still managed to hit three of Leeds' four shots on target without ever looking as if he was about to make himself a hero on his debut.

England striker Fowler was Leeds' best player - but that really is not saying much as he did not have much competition.

Fowler's best opening came in the 87th minute when the ball fell to him just five yards out. But with his back to goal he fell on his backside as he hit the shot at Fulham goalkeeper Edwin van der Sar.

The chants of "What a waste of money" rang round Craven Cottage. But, frankly, they could have been sung about several of Leeds boss David O'Leary's big-money buys.

O'Leary has spent £95million during his reign at Elland Road and yet was trying to play down his team's title chances as he insisted a Champions League place would be a good return on his investment. But you can bet that was not what O'Leary told Fowler when he was trying to persuade him to leave his beloved Liverpool for Leeds this week. The truth is that Leeds should be challenging for the title with the huge amount of talent at O'Leary's disposal and considering the money he has spent.

O'Leary has undoubtedly done a brilliant job at Elland Road and Leeds looked strong defensively and frustrated Fulham's strikers.

But going forward, Leeds lacked ideas, imagination and chances, leaving Fowler with next to nothing to feed off.

Fulham and Craven Cottage are supposed to be lucky omens for Fowler, who scored here on his Liverpool debut in the League Cup in October 1994 - and then hit five in the return leg at Anfield.

But Fulham and Leeds could not carve out five chances between them in yesterday's bore-draw.

Fulham defenders Andy Melville and Alain Goma were magnificent in keeping Fowler and his strike partner Mark Viduka subdued.

Injury-hit Leeds had to play striker Alan Smith as an emergency midfielder while Seth Johnson, a mere snip at £7million, looked out of his depth.

Fowler hardly got a sniff and was even reduced to hitting a speculative 45-yard shot which was his first effort on target after 13 minutes. But from then on it was all Fulham and yet for all their pretty football they lack a cutting edge.

The closest they came to breaking the deadlock was after 14 minutes when Luis Boa Morte danced round the Leeds defence before seeing his goalbound shot cleared off the line by Gary Kelly.

A nasty undercurrent was evident on the pitch which was mainly sparked by Smith's late foul on Fulham midfielder Steed Malbranque which earned him a booking.

But referee Graham Poll never dealt with it sufficiently and, as a result, the game degenerated.

Fowler had a rare chance in first-half injury time when he got on the end of Harry Kewell's deep cross but completely miskicked as he fell over at the far post. Fulham dominated the second half and Leeds keeper Nigel Martyn pulled off a great save when Boa Morte's free- kick found Goma at the back post but his header was superbly stopped.

Still, Fowler remained lively and his movement was good as he tested Fulham keeper Van der Sar with a dangerous swerving left-foot shot in the 73rd minute.

The Times

It Seemed once that, as surely as winter followed autumn, Robbie Fowler would always play in the red of his native Liverpool. Yesterday, though, cold blasts of wind that were distinctively December shrieked in off the Thames, the tennis players in Bishop's Park puffed hot plumes of breath into the air and Anfield's favourite footballing son emerged at Craven Cottage wearing, for the first time, the vivid yellow of Leeds United.

There was nothing particularly auspicious about his debut, though he nearly poached a goal in the dying minutes of a drab scoreless draw with Fulham. What mattered was the unequivocal evidence that a man whose very character had come to be synonymous with Liverpool, who had been nursed through many a melodrama by adoring Merseyside supporters, had really cut the umbilical cord that linked him to his Toxteth home and embarked upon a new adventure. His departure has been a cause of mourning in Liverpool.

The weekend has been full of stories of crossed wires on Merseyside. Conversations have been reported that revolved around being upset "he had moved on". Ten minutes later, the two men in question realised that one was talking about George Harrison, the other about Fowler. Liverpool lost two icons last week.

Eased out of Anfield as the last remnant of an ancient regime, Fowler's contribution to a Leeds side that is rock solid defensively but having trouble scoring may yet damn Liverpool's attempts to wrest the FA Barclaycard Premiership title away from Manchester United. In international terms, the avowed intention of David O'Leary, the Leeds manager, to restore Fowler's lost confidence by giving him an extended run in the first team is likely to advance his claims for a starting berth in the England side.

O'Leary drew encouragement from evidence that Fowler, who moved across the Pennines for a figure in the region of £10 million last week, grew stronger and more influential as the game went on. Of late, he had rarely been given that luxury. Under Gérard Houllier and, latterly, Phil Thompson, he rarely made it to the closing stages. His was usually the first number that flashed up on the electronic board when a Liverpool substitution was to be made.

"I've got three other top strikers at this club," O'Leary said after the match, "but what I want to do is give Robbie a run of maybe ten or 12 games in the first team so that he gets all his fitness and sharpness back and so he gets used to us and we get used to him.

"He is a finisher and a goalscorer and I was delighted with the way he played today. His all-round contribution was good and there was one shot, with no backlift, that would have taken a lot of goalkeepers by surprise. We have bought quality."

Fulham supporters, of course, sang "what a waste of money" when the final whistle went, but Fowler got a standing and lasting ovation from the travelling Leeds fans. On a cold day by the river, ushered on to the pitch by two lines of goose-pimpled cheerleaders called the Cravenettes, Robbie Fowler completed the leaving of Liverpool and began afresh.

The Sun

THEY say you should always leave your audience wanting more. Well, at least Robbie Fowler succeeded on that score.

By his own admission, Leeds' £11million striker did not exactly cover himself in glory in his first game for his new club.

But he can console himself with the knowledge things can only better - as soon as his team-mates learn how to pass him the ball.

For a player used to feasting on the creative skills of Gerrard, McAllister, Hamann, Redknapp, Smicer and Barmby at Liverpool, David O'Leary's no-nonsense approach to midfield play must have come as quite a culture shock to Fowler.

With Alan Smith moved back into the middle of the park to join David Batty and Seth Johnson, there was enough testosterone in the Leeds midfield to fuel a small army.

Great for those Leeds fans who like their football garnished with raw meat but not such good news for a goal poacher like Fowler who has built his reputation on a more subtle approach.

True, he did almost snatch all three points in the dying minutes when he latched on to Rio Ferdinand's header for a half-hit shot on the turn which stuck under the boot of Fulham keeper Edwin van der Sar.

But one rising shot from the edge of the box apart, that was just about all he contributed to a bitterly disappointing afternoon's entertainment. O'Leary has promised him a run of 10 games in his starting line-up to find his feet at Elland Road.

And that must be music to Fowler's ears after being rotated into obscurity during his final months at Anfield.

But just as Fowler has to acclimatise himself to Leeds' style of play, so his new team-mates have to get to grips with just what it is that makes their colleague tick.

For far too much of this game, O'Leary's midfield macho-men were so focused on going to war with Fulham's French cavaliers they almost forgot to pass the ball.

Smith and Johnson, to absolutely nobody's surprise, were both booked for stupid challenges on the mercurial Steed Malbranque.

And only ref Graham Poll knows how the name of Danny Mills did not join them in his notebook.

Yet Fulham refused to be intimidated by such strident tactics and Jean Tigana's Gallic grafters showed they have the stomach for a scrap which some of their compatriots down the road at Chelsea sometimes lack.

The end result, however, was a niggly, scrappy match which could have satisfied nobody other than Liverpool and Arsenal at the top of the Premiership table.

Fowler had been hoping the fact he had scored his first goal for Liverpool at Craven Cottage would prove to be some sort of lucky omen.

But optimism soon gave way to sheer fancifulness as he tried to beat Van der Sar with a 40-yard daisy-cutter which bounced at least three times before rolling into the arms of the waiting Dutchman.

Not that Mark Viduka was any better alongside him up front.

The big target man, wearing gloves like countryman Harry Kewell to keep out the London cold, looked totally out of sorts in his first game back since Australia's World Cup KO.

Most of what little penalty-box action there was centred around Nigel Martyn's goal and it required an acrobatic goal-line clearance by Gary Kelly to deny Luis Boa Morte a 13th-minute breakthrough goal.

John Collins tested Martyn's agility with a well-struck free-kick and the England keeper was back in action to claw out a back-post header from the excellent Alain Goma.

But with Louis Saha still labouring under the misapprehension he has to walk the ball into the net and Barry Hayles possessing the first touch of a former carpenter, all Fulham's neat approach play went to pot the minute the ball reached their front two.

With record signing Steve Marlet sidelined by a fractured leg, Tigana's striking options are severely limited right now.

O'Leary, with Fowler, Viduka, Smith and Robbie Keane all contesting two places up front, is facing an embarrassment of attacking riches. Not that there was much evidence of that here.

Leeds have now won just one of their last seven Premiership games and have slipped four points behind league leaders Liverpool.

Not exactly a crisis, but they do have to pick up the pace again if they are to remain serious title contenders.

O'Leary, of course, would have us believe his young babes have no chance of sustaining a championship challenge and that his ambition this season extends to no more than getting back into the Champions League.

But you do not go out mid-season and spend £11m on a new striker if you are merely looking to finish in the top four. And no amount of O'Leary blarney can disguise the real extent of Leeds' ambitions.