“A person often meets his destiny on the road he took to avoid it.” ~Jean de La Fontaine
Fernando Torres’ departure from Liverpool this season was a bolt from the blue (no pun intended!). Here was the quintessential Liverpool hero, a player who had quickly established cult status after his arrival in the summer of 2007. A self-professed Liverpool fan, Torres shone like a beacon of hope in an increasingly depressing era at Anfield, blighted by the acrimonious ownership of Hicks and Gillett.
And yet, just when the club had cast that particular monkey off its back, El Nino decided that he’d had enough. Did he gaze into the future and foresee a club unable to return quickly to the coliseum of Champions League football and without the resources to recover to a position from which to launch an assault on that elusive Premier League summit?
Whatever his conclusion, it seems clear that what he anticipated didn't match his own lofty ambitions or could not fulfill his earning requirements. So when Abramovitch’s envoy arrived from Chelsea offering 20 pieces of silver, he was off without so much as a backward glance.
Yes, it seems clear that Torres saw a different destiny for himself and felt it was time to act. What he almost certainly failed to consider was the legacy of his predecessors, former giants of Anfield and fellow strikers, who chose a similar path only to end up in the valley of doom. All strikers crave goals and the elusive hat-trick is something they treasure more than most things in life, but this is one hat-trick Fernando will not want to achieve.
Robbie Fowler remains a legend on the Kop. Fowler came through the Liverpool youth system and exploded onto the scene in 1993 as an 18-year-old, bagging 18 goals in 34 appearances in his first season. Over nine seasons his record of 171 goals in 330 appearances (one goal in every 1.93 games) cemented his God like status at the club and he wrote himself into the record books.
But in 2001 Fowler fell out with the Houllier/Thompson management team and found himself third-choice striker behind Michael Owen and Emile Heskey. At 26 Robbie decided it was time for change and like Torres he headed for pastures new. Since that day Fowler’s career has degenerated into what could only be described as that of a journeyman.
He’s plied his trade at seven different clubs (including a brief, but ultimately unsuccessful, return to Liverpool in 2006/07) amassing a further 223 appearances and scoring 77 goals at an average of one goal every 2.9 games.
A difference of one goal every 1.9 v 2.9 games may not seem that great but it represents the huge gulf between the most lethal strikers on the planet and the "also-rans."
He is currently playing in my own backyard, turning out for Perth Glory in the Australian A League as he ekes out a final few dollars before hanging up his boots. Neither Fowler nor his team realised any semblance of glory in the season just concluded.
For a player who reached such heights and whose star burned so brightly during his time at Anfield, he’s raised barely a flicker since he walked away in 2001 and has long since become one of footballs forgotten men, except maybe on the Kop where they hang onto their history with pride.
Michael Owen followed in Fowler’s footsteps and their careers at Anfield overlapped. Another product of the Liverpool youth system, Owen made his debut in 1996 and spent eight seasons at the club, scoring 158 goals in 297 appearances (one goal in every 1.88 games).
With the departure of manager Houllier in 2004, Owen called time on his Liverpool career and headed for the bright lights of Madrid, a place many great players only get to play a brief cameo role before being offloaded, and so it was with Owen, lasting just a single season.
Since then Owen’s career has spiraled downward, blighted by injuries. The turning point seemed to be a completely innocuous incident when playing for England at the 2006 World Cup in Germany. Owen collapsed on the touchline without another player near him and the cruciate knee injury he sustained seemed to spell the beginning of the end of a great career.
While he has not quite become the journeyman that Fowler has, Owen still has some years left to fulfill that potential. A frustrating time at Newcastle was ended when he was offered a lifeline by Manchester United and has since warmed the bench as their fourth-choice striker.
Since his Anfield departure he has played 171 times and notched 59 goals at an average of one every 2.9 games, remarkably similar stats to Fowler and ones that lead to the same conclusion.
The fact is that these two once-great strikers both left their glory days behind the day that they walked away from the club that gave birth to their talent.
Career-wise, there are many similarities while personality wise there are many differences. Fowler was a working class "scally" from Toxteth. Never any stranger to controversy on and off the pitch, it can be argued that personal discipline was at the root of Robbie’s demise. Or maybe being a multi-millionaire at the age of 26 just takes away the hunger.
In contrast, Owen was a middle class "boy next door" type; the model professional who didn’t invite controversy and could be described as a manager’s dream.
Interestingly, while Fowler is still revered on the Kop, Owen is held in contempt by many. That may be down in part to the nature of Owen’s departure, being seen to chase the mighty dollar, and the fact that he now earns his living at Liverpool’s greatest rivals, or may also be in part due to the common denominator on the Kop being more "Toxteth scally" than "middle class boy next door."
So back to Torres and why all that is relevant! There are, of course, many differences but also many parallels. Torres spent his formative years at Atletico Madrid and arrived at Liverpool already the finished article. He stayed just three and a half seasons, considerably less than Fowler and Owen.
And yet in that time he arguably achieved the same status as a Liverpool legend. As a threesome, they represent the outstanding Liverpool strikers of the Premiership era. In his time at Anfield Torres was, for most people’s money, the best striker in world football.
The 2010 season was a frustrating one for the striker. Injuries had become an ongoing issue in his time in England and continued throughout that year. The joy of Spain’s first World Cup win was tarnished for Torres by his lack of form and fitness and he only played a bit part in the achievement.
That form carried into the new season. Torres looked distinctly off colour during the final act of his Liverpool career, scoring nine goals in 26 appearances and portraying the demeanor of a man whose mind was elsewhere. In his defence, it was a dark time at the club as the American owners fought their final bloody battle and Roy Hodgson never got to grips with the manager’s role.
When Torres walked he left behind a record of 81 goals in 142 appearances (1 goal every 1.75 games), even more impressive than Fowler or Owen.
So who would blame Torres for leaving in such circumstances? Many Liverpool fans don’t while others feel betrayed. I know none, though, who don’t now believe that it was an excellent piece of business. Ask any Liverpool fan today the question, Suarez and Carroll for Torres? and the answer will be a resounding, Yes thanks, all day long!
But that’s not the point really. The point is—or more appropriately, the question is this: Will Torres meet his destiny on the road he took to avoid it?
It’s fair to say that his opening act at Chelsea has been a disaster. At a time when Chelsea rallied and briefly threatened to retain their Premier League crown, Torres contributed little and spent much of the time as a spectator. Under the glaring media spotlight he’s delivered just a single goal in 15 outings for the club who bought him with Champions League glory in mind.
Like Fowler, Torres left Liverpool at the age of 26 and, like Owen at that age, injuries are now a major factor in his career. Hindsight shows that both Fowler and Owen had their best years behind them by the age of 26.
Will history repeat itself? For a striker that relies on pace and guile, the toll of persistent injuries can take that half a yard of pace away; that ability to turn a defender in a flash and bury a chance in the top corner. It’s small margins but small margins make the difference between a top-class striker and an average one.
How ironic would it be if Chelsea’s aging squad coupled with a reluctance on Abramovitch’s part to invest heavily, having already spent £75m in January, were to slip in coming seasons while a resurgent Liverpool under the guidance of Dalglish and with investment from the new owners were to find themselves once again on the winners’ podium?
I’m not betting a cent that Torres won’t turn things around and bang in 30 goals for Chelsea next season, but neither am I betting a cent that we haven’t already seen the best of Torres. The precedent is firmly set in stone and Fernando could yet walk into the wilderness, cast down by the same spell that infected Fowler and Owen when they chose a similar path.
Can I anticipate watching Torres in years to come play out the final seasons of his career in the Australian A League or maybe warming the bench at Old Trafford? Only time will tell.
Tread carefully, Fernando, as you follow in the shadow of Anfield giants!