Ben Smee – The Guardian
Brisbane Roar’s coach on wanting to be taken seriously as a manager, being a ‘test case’, and staying up into the early hours to watch Liverpool on TV
‘I’m a person that has had a relatively good career as a player, so people will always have an opinion.’ Photograph: Dan Peled/AAP
Half the world away from Merseyside, Robbie Fowler’s porcelain white face has flushed red in the Australian morning sun. The former Liverpool striker, now head coach of the A-League’s Brisbane Roar, has been buzzing around the training pitch, running drills in a way some managers might think undignified. When the ball falls to his feet, just like it did as an 18-year-old on his debut, Fowler can still make football seem an effortless caper.
In retirement, a striker’s eye for goal is about as useless as a Tuesday yard sale. Fowler knows the same raw talent that propelled his playing career won’t help him as a manager. Which partly explains the reason he has spent the past decade away from the scrutiny of top-flight football; relearning the game by studying for coaching badges and honing the craft by working with academy players.
“I think back on myself as a player, I was maybe pushed right in at the deep end and I did well,” Fowler says. “But now as a manager I’m not pushed in at the deep end and I feel comfortable, I feel competent and more than equipped.”
Fowler spent two seasons playing in Australia at the end of his career, before he briefly took charge of Thai side Muangthong United in 2012. After Thailand he decided to pursue a patient path into management, even as his contemporaries began to find themselves in thrust into prominent roles, armed with ambition rather than experience. Fowler, 44, is two years younger than Ole Gunnar Solskjær, now in charge at Manchester United. Frank Lampard quit playing only three years ago, and has taken the reins at Chelsea.
“Like any player, you want to be the best you can at whatever level you can reach,” Fowler says. “I was never going to start in the Premier League straight away, so for me it was a case of starting somewhere which was a good level. It has been years of hard work in terms of coaching. I knew I wanted to go through all the coaching badges and get to the level required because I wanted people to take me seriously.
“When you stop playing you want to go straight into the next chapter of your life as soon as possible. Of course I would have liked to have done it a little bit earlier but in a way I’m so glad it worked out the way it did because I’ve got … the Fifa pro licence. When you’ve got that people think ‘well, maybe he is a little bit serious’.
“When you have been quite a good player, at times you can never win when you go into management because people maybe expect a little bit more. If you don’t get things right it’s always the case of ‘I told you so’.”
Fowler’s decision to make career strides in Australia, rather than the English lower leagues, certainly does not reflect a lack of ambition. It also has some distinct advantages. Brisbane shipped a record 71 goals and won just four games last season, finishing second last. Fowler has a remit for a bottom-up rebuild of the club, which was once the league’s powerhouse, and he has brought in nine players from various lower league sides back at home. The scenario feels like a test of his abilities as a football league manager, but without the same in-your-face scrutiny he would experience in the football league.
“Sometimes you pick up your paper and you don’t even read about football, which to me is really strange,” Fowler says. “[But] I don’t think [there will be a lack of scrutiny in Australia]; I’m a person that has had a relatively good career as a player so people will always have an opinion anyway.
“The good thing for me coming here is that I can get my own blueprint. You saw Brisbane last year and without being disrespectful they definitely struggled. They had an ageing team who needed change and a different mentality, a different mindset. We’re a new team and we want to do well. The players we’ve brought in, some of them from the lower leagues of the the UK, are doing really well.”
Fowler’s first match in charge, against reigning champions Perth Glory – an away trip roughly the distance between the UK and Kazakhstan – brought back a creditable point with a side featuring nine debutants.
On the Monday before his second match in charge, having been forced to park the momentum of the result against Perth during the league’s newly-introduced bye-week, Fowler looks slightly weary as he trudges off the training pitch after a morning session, but for good reason. Liverpool’s late equaliser at Old Trafford went in about 3.20am. Fowler is quickly remembering what it means to be serious about football in a backward timezone.
“I’m not a great sleeper anyway so I actually stayed up and watched it,” Fowler says. “It’s what you do with football isn’t it?”
In spite of the horrendous kick-off times, Fowler says the laid-back Australian experience might help shape his management style, and also help to encourage potential managers and players to find career opportunities off the beaten track.
“I wanted to be as successful and to do as well as what I can. For me it didn’t really matter where it was. We could be a little bit of a test case, if you like, for managers or players at clubs. The lifestyle is a big thing because you don’t play as many games so you can go through a season without all the aches and pains and niggles, and enjoy the fact we play one game a week.
“I want the players to enjoy it. The enjoyment comes with winning games right through to training sessions. We are trying to get them to enjoy the ball, to get them to love it a little bit more. That doesn’t mean we don’t want to be competitive. I think we will be competitive.”