They thought they were signing God – what they got was an ageing star with a paunch who in the fag end of his glorious career had come for one last big pay day.
Robbie Fowler’s bizarre stint at then reigning Thai Premier League champions Muangthong United back in 2011 is a rather strange tale of footballing hype over reality, of fat pay cheques and shattered illusions.
The fairytale for Thai football fans was short-lived, with Fowler back in England seven months later, significantly richer but a somewhat diminished figure. He was never to don his boots competitively again.
It had all began with much fanfare and hope in Thailand, though the warning signs were there if you cared to look. Fowler’s previous club was Perth Glory in Australia’s A-League, who he had joined from North Queensland Fury the previous season.
Fowler, who netted 183 goals in total for Liverpool over two spells, didn’t exactly set the world alight in Perth, scoring nine times in 28 matches, with his team finishing second from bottom.
He was still expected to stay another year in Australia, but surprisingly told the club’s chairman in June that he was returning to the UK to “spend more time with my family” and “pursue my coaching badges”.
To the football world’s (and Perth Glory’s) general astonishment, just a month later Fowler, then 36, announced he had signed for Muangthong on a one-year contract, in a deal reportedly worth 25-27 million baht (around £500,000). The deal was apparently wrapped up in just a week.
He turned down a player-coach role with Peter Reid’s Plymouth Argyle to come to the Land of Smiles. “Fowler-mania” immediately hit Thailand, a country in love with the English Premier League, and Liverpool in particular.
Fowler flew into Thailand alone one evening in early July, with a huge press pack there to greet his arrival at Suvarnabhumi airport in Bangkok.
Excited airport staff got him to sign their shirts, and he was “educated” on Thai football in front of the cameras by Muangthong general manager Ronnarit Seu-vaja, who took him through a club programme and pointed out some of the team’s players. Fowler looked suitably bemused.
Muangthong fans, albeit in small numbers, chanted “Fowler, Fowler” in the arrivals hall. Fowler offered awkward bowed wais, the respectful manner of greeting in Thailand.
Three days of meet and greets and interviews continued, including a press conference with then newly elected Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and her son Pike.
The slog tested Fowler’s patience – one particularly excruciating interview with Thai star “Woody” involved him asking whether Robbie was going to a be a “good boy” in Thailand.
The happily married father of four managed to keep his cool and retain a friendly manner throughout, but his understandable discomfort was clear.
Platitudes largely reigned in interviews. “The professionalism of Muangthong is unbelievable,” Fowler remarked, which may have brought a wry smile to those in the know to the chaos of Thai football.
But Muangthong were surely happy with the publicity, raking back a little of the striker’s wages by flogging 10,000 No.9 Fowler shirts in the first week.
While Fowler may have hoped to find refuge in his football, it didn’t happen.
His first job was to get fit, and to his credit Fowler brought over his own trainer from the UK. He hadn’t played competitively since the A-League had ended that March and it showed in his rather rotund appearance.
But he didn’t make his debut until August. Worse, it took him a full 250 minutes of playing time before he finally scored, a simple header from a few yards out in his side’s 4-1 win over Chiang Rai United.
By that time, in a bizarre turn of events, Fowler found himself as player-coach. At the end of September Henrique Calisto was sacked after Muangthong’s loss to Kuwait in the AFC Cup.
His first game in charge was a 3-1 win at Samut Songkhram, and then followed the 4-1 home thumping of Chiang Rai.
But things began to unravel. While famously uncritical Thai fans were not overtly hostile, they were clearly underwhelmed. Fowler looked badly off the pace in games and the team were not even winning, let alone winning in the style Muangthong had become accustomed to.
Expat fans especially were not impressed by Fowler’s frequent absences from Thailand and apparent indifferent attitude. He was happy to tweet about English TV but rarely talked about his club.
The English language Thunderdome fan blog started a “Fowler out” campaign.
Fowler attended former Liverpool player Gary Ablett’s funeral back home in England – but stayed on for another two weeks, missing two league games in total.
Under Fowler, the team suffered more defeats in half a season than the two previous seasons in total. Particularly ignominious was a 3-1 home defeat to lowly Navy FC, their first home loss since their Division 1 days back in 2008.
The club’s owner went public to express his dissatisfaction with performances. Fowler had inherited a sinking ship, but was going down fast with it.
Muangthong eventually finished third, a disastrous 25 points behind their bitter rivals Buriram, who won the title.
Fowler’s swansong was the 2012 Thai FA Cup Final in mid-January, which Muangthong lost in extra-time. Fowler actually lasted the full 120 minutes, and drew some praise for his improved performance.
But with talk that Fowler was in continual talk with other clubs – including in India – it was clear this was not a marriage made in heaven and the commitment was not strong on both sides.
A few weeks later, it was announced he had departed the club, with current Fulham boss Slaviša Jokanović taking over as manager.
Fowler’s time in Thailand didn’t seem to put him off management, with him pursuing his coaching badges, in between TV work and running his property empire, back in England.
He is set to complete his Uefa Pro Licence, the highest available qualification for coaches, this year.
“I loved it,” he told World Soccer Talk in 2014 of his time as a manager in Thailand. “It really whetted my appetite.”
Thai fans were, however, left more than a little shortchanged, especially by his time on the pitch. The sixth-highest goalscorer in the history of the English Premier League could barely hit a barn door. He scored just twice in 13 appearances.
FourFourTwo Thailand judged him thus: “Fowler did not play well. He’d lost his desire and was slow in his responses. He had no speed and looked ill at ease on the pitch. His once mighty left foot that was feared all over Europe had disappeared.”
Fowler never officially retired as a player – and was linked to lower league moves in England – but perhaps deep down realised the chance for more fat pay cheques was over. The time had come to call it a day.