No Happy Ending – Robbie Fowler’s Australian Adventure

Robbie Fowler and Brisbane Roar have decided to part ways in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic putting a halt to the A-League season. While it may come as a surprise to see this happen before the conclusion of the ongoing campaign, the writing had been on the wall for some time. Fowler’s managerial stint in Australia was largely unsuccessful and numerous major fan voices have expressed delight that the Liverpool legend won’t return to see out the remainder of the season.

Eyebrows were raised when the three-time A-League champions unveiled the inexperienced Robbie Fowler as John Aloisi’s permanent successor. Besides a brief stint as player-manager of Thai giants Muangthong United during the early 2010s, this was Fowler’s first proper foray into management. As a former North Queensland Fury and Perth Glory player, Fowler was no stranger to Australian football culture when he arrived. The city of Brisbane has a rich footballing history, with not just the Roar but also the Strikers, from the NPL, playing an important role in the community.

After two initial third-place finishes, the Roar struggled under Aloisi, slumping to 6th in 17/18 and toiling away near the bottom of the ladder (table) early on in 18/19, culminating in Aloisi’s resignation in December of 2018. Murmurs of fan discontent and disciplinary issues within the squad grew ever louder and the following month, things came to a head when The Den, the Roar’s main fan collective, withdrew their support after becoming disillusioned with the handling of several issues relating to active support by football’s governing bodies and the club. Following Aloisi’s departure, Darren Davies took over as interim coach until the end of the season but was unable to turn their fortunes around. Brisbane finished 9th and missed the finals (playoffs) in successive campaigns for only the second time in the club’s A-League history.

Fowler’s first items on the agenda were to get the fans back onside and to build a team capable of playing exciting, attacking football – one of the club principles of the modern-day Roar. He failed to achieve both. To give him the benefit of the doubt, he didn’t have much to work with from the beginning. He inherited a squad with little to no talent good enough to really challenge for a finals spot. Several of the club’s underperforming core players left, legend Matt McKay retired, and impressive youngster Dane Ingham signed for reigning premiers (regular season champions) Perth; only experienced goalkeeper Jamie Young, right-back Jack Hingert and young-ish striker Dylan Wenzel-Halls, one of the few shining lights of the dire previous campaign, were noteworthy remaining players.

A rebuild was on the cards. A lot of players were signed from Europe, mainly from England, among them several Australians to comply with the foreigner limit, Aiden O’Neill was brought in on loan from Burnley after being a standout player in a terrible Central Coast Mariners side the year before, and a few U-21s were called up. There was a buzz around the club; it was a fresh start for a completely unrecognizable team.

That buzz soon gave way to concern, however. After going four games without a win to start the season, and only picking up nine points in their first ten games in total, pressure began to mount and fans grew restless once more. To add to the misery, the team was playing unwatchable football. Just dire stuff. Off-the-pitch, social media antics from Fowler didn’t help his cause either.

A picture emblematic of Brisbane’s early struggles under Fowler (Albert Perez/Getty Images)

After the turn of the year, the club experienced a revival. Scott McDonald was signed in January in what seemed more like an act of desperation than an actual transfer strategy given that the 36-year-old had only scored once for Western United, but this strange move soon bore fruit. McDonald has been a great addition, scoring four goals in nine games prior to the COVID-19 break. For all the good results – only losing twice and drawing twice since January 1st, a run of twelve games which has seen them climb to 4th – much didn’t change in the way of a lack of excitement around Fowler’s philosophy. His style of play was so dull that fans confessed they would rather watch their team play good football and lose, than watch Fowler’s side pick up points.

Fowler, being ever the confrontational character and no stranger to controversy, didn’t take too kindly to those comments. And as his social media antics became more inexcusable, the anger within the fanbase became more potent. The peak of his asshattery came in March when he harassed a female supporter, who will remain anonymous for privacy reasons, after making a comment on Twitter.

“I made a pretty simple tweet. I didn’t swear, I commented that I wanted more youth playing time”, she wrote on theladiesleague.com recalling the incident. “When tweeting that comment, I certainly did not expect a CEO and Coach of a football club to respond to me. But they both did and at first, I laughed, engaged with their responses, and got a little angry at how my comments were belittled. Then I got a bit worried, noticed that I was being searched more, all my articles were being scrutinized, and then my employment was brought up.”

I urge everyone to read her piece as it doesn’t just talk about the incident, but also sexism in football, and the excessive, disproportionate scrutiny women in sport face. At one point during her Twitter exchange with Fowler, he asked her why she had deleted her workplace from her bio. That’s not just creepy, that’s harassment, especially considering the large following he has. “My opinions on football did not deserve to be related to my employment and called out by a man with a million devout disciples”, she wrote. This wasn’t the first time that Robbie Fowler publicly attacked his critics and tried to suppress their voices and it certainly won’t be the last.

As Vince Rugari reported in the Sydney Morning Herald on Monday, Fowler flew back to the UK in March and won’t return to Australia, officially severing ties with Brisbane. He is now the bookies’ favorite to take over at Birmingham City; the Blues announced earlier this month that Pep Clotet will leave at the end of the season to “explore other coaching opportunities”.

Fowler’s stint down under was a strange endeavor. He deserves credit for turning Brisbane’s season around and getting them into finals contention. But the way he handled himself publicly, his stale tactics, and uninspiring nature suggest that he won’t be missed in Australia. It’s a shame because having someone with his reputation coach in the A-League should have been a positive development, but in the end, Fowler should be disappointed with himself. He ought to grow from this experience and reconsider how he wants to be perceived in the future, not just by his own fans – at whichever club he may end up – but also by the media, and act accordingly.

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