In terms of global recognisability, Robbie Fowler is arguably the most well known expat working in Thailand today. The ex-Liverpool and England football prodigy who, during his days at Anfield was known by fans and the press (when he was in their graces) as ‘God’, is regularly extolled as being one of the greatest football players England has ever produced. Fowler, now 36 years old, has somewhat miraculously ended up on Thai turf, playing at Thailand’s highest profile club Muangthong Untited (MTUTD).
The ‘God’ epithet you could argue was well deserved when you consider Fowler’s sporting achievements. He scored 183 goals for Liverpool and is the fourth highest goal scorer in the history of the Premiership, while he also holds the record for the Premiership’s fastest ever hat-trick, bagging three goals against Arsenal in just four minutes and thirty three seconds. He bears an accolade that only the recently furnished Wayne Rooney, and Ryan Giggs, can boast of, which is winning PFA ‘Young Player of the Year’ award twice (in a row in Fowler’s case), and he was also capped 26 times for England, scoring seven goals.
His popularity, and in some people’s eyes infamy, soared in England when during a match against Everton he mimicked a snorting action, of the narcotic kind, against the white line around the penalty area after scoring a goal. Everton fans had earlier been taunting him concerning his alleged cocaine use. Fowler, with other premiership players, was regularly painted as a ‘bad boy’ player by the scavenger ilk tabloid newspapers in the UK. With Fowler now playing football in perhaps the bad boy capital of the world, you might wonder if some tabloids have a ‘man’ in the nation’s capital hoping that Fowler will provide them with a ‘money shot’. Fowler himself, it is reported, has no money problems being the third richest (estimated worth: 31 million pounds) British Football player ever. He’s known for his property market savvy and at one point fans at football games would sing, “We all live in a Robbie Fowler house,” to the tune of Yellow Submarine. So, football fans might wonder, how on earth did he end up playing for Muangthong United?
Finding Robbing Fowler wasn’t particularly difficult. And in early September after booking into possibly Bangkok’s most run-down hotel, I taxied to the red and black stadium of Muangthong United.
When approached by a young chain-smoking office worker, who at first asked, “Who are you?” I wasn’t feeling particularly confident, in spite of arranging and confirming the interview with some kind of agent (who transpired, it seemed, to be a rogue agent).
“I have an appointment,” I told him, and the young man turned to another bemused staff member who also had absolutely no idea what, or who, Citylife was.
About one hour later he returned, and asked me, “Who do you support?”
I was going to say myself, and then considered saying my fantasy football team (Crystal Meth), but opted for Leeds United as that’s where I grew up and Fowler had been a prolific scorer for them in the few games he played with the team. “Good,” said the lad smiling, “because he said he won’t give interviews to (Manchester) United fans. ”
By 4 p.m. we had been shunted to back of the stands, and had been waiting three hours already. Could he have meant United, as in Leeds United? Surely not. “He’ll see you, but he has training,” said the office staff worker, still gripping onto a smoke. And so we sat at the back of the modern Muangthong ‘Yamaha’ stadium and watched the cars on the adjacent highway skim past the ridge of the Kop.
The players, Thai, African, and European, including Robbie Fowler, came onto the field and started kicking the ball around. We may well have stayed at the back of the stands all evening had I not gone down to call over to the trainer to ask for some time with new Muangthong star.
“No one told me you were coming, I have to train, sorry about that,” Fowler said. But he agreed to answer a few questions. Although somewhat guarded at first – I got the feeling he was hesitant to speak to me – he soon relaxed, and actually complimented me on my Thai language acumen after I said something to the Thai photographer. “You speak Thai well, better than me, well, of course better than me,” he said almost sheepishly. “I’ve been here a while,” I told him, and I thought, thanks, you’re not too bad at football either. I have to admit to haveing felt slightly star-struck, having played football all my life and watched Fowler’s face on TV for the last fifteen years or so.
“So, how’s it going, life here in Thailand?”
“Good,” he replied personably, “I’ve only been here only about 6 or 7 weeks, but I’ve enjoyed it so far.”
He explains that he’s only played three games of football, and started just one, while with the monsoon rains the pitches have also been water-logged, which he says “is not ideal, but I have to get used to it.”
He then talks about making the big move to Bangkok, a distance of approximately 9656.06 km from his birthplace of Toxteth, Liverpool. “The culture change is obviously massive, but with football you travel, I went on holidays with the family, travelled with the lads, so in way I knew what to expect.”
Fowler had played some football in Australia before Thailand and says that playing there helped him to get used to the weather. “The problem is the language here; it makes it easier when everyone speaks English. I don’t mind the heat, Australia was hot too, playing there gave me a good grounding. it’s just the language barrier that can be hard.”
I asked him about his status as a ‘deity’ and how that may have migrated with him: “You may have been a God at Anflield, but do you realise how popular you are here in Thailand, being Liverpool’s top goal scorer at a time where Liverpool were easily the most supported team?”
“I know Thais are passionate about football,” he says, “and have a good knowledge of the Premiership. It’s a privilege to be spoken about to be honest.”
Although his face is no longer weekly broadcast around the world he still has fans noticing him. “I haven’ really been out that much, just to a few shopping malls and stuff like that. But it only takes one person,” he says of people approaching him in public, “and then the floodgates open,” he adds, alluding to people wanting to take photographs with him.
In his short time here he admits that he is still not sure if this is the place he will lay his hat, or hang-up his boots. “Sure, it’s different from the UK, I mean it’s surreal watching elephants walking about in the street. It’s a good place for the kids though, the family like it. But I don’t know, you never know what’s around the corner.”
He then started to rise from the stadium seats in which we were sitting and kind of motioned that he had to get back to training. “Sorry about that he said, I really didn’t know you were coming,” his Toxteth inflections still firmly in place. “Well, enjoy Thailand, and good luck with the football.”
“Thanks,” he replied, and then jogged on to the pitch.
“Oh,” I said, “I nearly forgot. Can you say something nice about Leeds United?” I figured I’d do my bit for my long sundered air-ball opponents and ex-Service Crew friends who still religiously watch Leeds unglamorously underachieve week in week out under the pissing West Riding rain.
“I only played 24 games there, I was injured a lot, but I enjoyed my time there, everything was good. We had a fantastic team.”
There, that should make them happy.
And like that, he was gone.
Seven minutes with God. On returning back to a hotel, that was so old and battered I feared I might never make it out of the shower, I thought about the interview. I didn’t have chance to ask him many of things I wanted to talk about, mainly best players, worst moments, good times, bad newspapers, millionaires, babes, rich lists, the YTS scheme, cocaine (allegations!), sports savantism and the Toxteth riots. But there wasn’t enough time for that. I really did feel like I’d been chatting to an apparition.