LONDON — Robbie Fowler joined Leeds United in November 2001 from Liverpool for £11 million. Fourteen months, 32 games and 14 goals later Fowler signed with Manchester City in a deal worth £7.5 million.

Christopher Davies

The England striker’s wages at Elland Road were around £40,000 a week so with the £3.5 million loss Leeds has taken on his transfer value, each of the 32 matches Fowler played for Leeds cost the better part of £200,000.

It will be a similar story with Seth Johnson, a £7 million signing from Crewe in October 2001. Johnson, like Fowler, has suffered from injuries and has played 19 games for Leeds — his probable departure (Middlesbrough is interested) will represent another massive financial blow for the Yorkshire club.

Leeds also lost £5 million on Robbie Keane when it sold the striker to Tottenham earlier this season, 15 months after his £12 million arrival from Inter Milan.

Such figures are not necessarily a criticism of Leeds but growing proof that the transfer market has all but collapsed.

Leeds is £77 million in debt, which is why Lee Bowyer was offloaded to West Ham for £300,000 last week and Olivier Dacourt was loaned to AS Roma.

Terry Venables is saying nothing about the downsizing of his squad but you don’t have to be a mind reader to know he is far from happy. His hands, however, are tied.

“In the current footballing climate, an offer of any magnitude leaves the board with no option but to consider it,” said chairman Peter Ridsdale, but for “consider” you can take “accept.”

“Lee Bowyer has gone to West Ham and the alternative was to get nothing for him at the end of the season (when his contract ended). Olivier Dacourt was not in Terry’s plans.”

Leeds also sold Rio Ferdinand to Manchester United for £30 million last summer since when, including Fowler, it has brought in £45 million while paying just one fee — £2.7 million to Liverpool for Nick Barmby.

Quite how Leeds amassed such massive debts is puzzling, though football seems to operate in its own financial world.

Since David O’Leary was appointed manager in 1998, Leeds has paid out £91 million in transfers and collected £97 million. During that period, it has had lucrative runs in the Champions League while enjoying good domestic results, yet Leeds is £77 million in debt.

None of which will concern Fowler as he prepares for his City debut against Newcastle on Saturday. Fowler is concerned only with rebuilding a career that has almost been on hold for a couple of years for various reasons and proving that he is still one of the foremost strikers in the Premiership.

The rumor mill has it that Liverpool manager Gerard Houllier wanted to break up the “Spice Boys” at Anfield and Fowler had too often found himself in the wrong place at the wrong time, particularly late at night.

He became third-choice striker behind Michael Owen and Emile Heskey and a training ground bustup with coach Phil Thompson — Fowler was practicing free-kicks and Thompson was hit in the face with the ball — did not help matters.

Liverpool for its part said it wanted to keep Fowler but claimed it could not risk losing a player whose contract had 19 months to run on a Bosman free transfer.

At his peak, Fowler was the most popular Liverpool player among the supporters, a local lad with a touch of the devil, but who produced the goods. His partnerships with Stan Collymore and Owen were prolific and in 2001 Newcastle manager Sir Bobby Robson hailed Fowler as “one of England’s greatest strikers.”

But the five-year Anfield love affair was coming to an end with Houllier questioning Fowler’s fitness and attitude. Never blessed with Owen’s pace or Heskey’s build, Fowler proved to be a natural, lethal and clinical goal-scorer, a player who can convert the half chance or even quarter chance.

In 236 league appearances for Liverpool, Fowler scored 120 goals, an average any striker would be proud of.

Injuries seem to have blunted Fowler’s cutting edge, though his 32 matches for Leeds produced 14 goals — only two this season — so one can understand Venables’ frustration.

What Fowler needs is a lengthy run free from injuries because any team managed by Kevin Keegan is virtually guaranteed to create chances so at Manchester City the striker should have few complaints about the service.

Fowler and Nicolas Anelka — ironically signed on loan by Liverpool last season in the wake of Fowler’s departure to Leeds — give City a strike-force “to be in awe of,” according to Blues captain Steve Howey.

“The signing of a player of Robbie’s caliber is going to add a lot of quality to our squad,” said Howey. “Robbie is the best finisher in the country along with Alan Shearer.”

Fowler will probably have to drop his basic wage to £35,000, but before anyone prepares to send donations the difference between that and his Leeds earnings will be covered by a signing-on fee.

The transfer market may not be what it used to be but the salaries of the top players are “obscene and astronomical” in the view of Manchester United striker Ruud van Nistelrooy.

“If you play in the first team at United your wages are astronomical,” said the Dutch international. “Honestly, what we earn is not just a whacking amount by Dutch standards, it’s obscene when you compare it with the rest of Europe.

“As a player, you choose a club and you pick the ideal country, but I admit the size of your wage packet plays a major part.”

* * * * *

Last Monday, the Football Association announced that referee Uriah Rennie had rescinded the yellow card he showed to Blackburn defender Lucas Neill in the Worthington Cup semifinal against Manchester United the previous Tuesday.

F.A. rules state a referee has 48 hours after the game to review any decision but Rennie apparently had not had the chance to look at the video until Monday.

And the cow jumped over the moon . . .

Are we expected to believe that an official on the Premier League’s select list who earns around £50,000 a year from refereeing could not find 10 minutes to look at the incident where Neill was cautioned for diving as Mikael Silvestre challenged?

The truth is that Rennie, who is reluctant to alter any decision, was leaned on from “above” because the yellow card was so obviously incorrect. But a red card to the F.A. for the worst excuse of the year so far.

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