The immutable law

FOR once what the Italians call The Immutable Law of the Ex didn't work, when Leeds United were thrashed 4-0 by Liverpool at Elland Road in February. It just had been widely assumed that Robbie Fowler would get a goal against his former club, for old times' sake, you might say. Particularly as the England striker had been so bitterly reluctant to leave the club which was his local one, where he had been nurtured from adolescence, where he had excelled as one of the most formidable goal scorers they had ever had, playing on a number of occasions for England.

But Fowler and the French manager of Liverpool, Gerrard Houllier, not to mention the assistant coach, the former Liverpool centre-back, Phil Thompson, with whom Fowler had a furious row, simply did not see eye to eye, with the result that Houllier seemed glad to get rid of him and to receive the 11 million which Leeds United paid.

For a while indeed it seemed that Liverpool had made a very bad error, certainly forgetting the Italians' Immutable Law, which states that as often as not, a player will score against the club which has discarded him. With big Emile Heskey, an expensive signing from Leicester City, constantly firing blanks, with Michael Owen often dropping out with injuries, with a phalanx of other strikers not quite doing their stuff in front of goal, even the signing on loan of the eternal maverick Nicolas Anelka from Paris Saint Germain didn't seem to compensate for Fowler's absence, as he began, after a somewhat muted start, to knock in the goals for Leeds.

But then what happened? Why, a Liverpool team which has been accused of boring, unadventurous, defensive sterility, in which Heskey had gone weeks without a goal till at long last scoring a few days earlier against Leicester his old team - this illustrating that good old Immutable Law, Haskey and Liverpool ran wild at Elland Road. Two goals for a rampant Heskey, none at all for a morose Fowler, 4-0 to Liverpool.

Yet, the so called Law does tend to hold good. Look, the example, at the case of Marco di Vaio, now banging in the goals after a slow start to the season for Parma who, like himself, have vigorously revived. The 25-year-old Roman striker joined his local club Lazio as a youth, but what kind of a chance did he get there? In two and a bit seasons as a full-time professional, he made just eight appearances, all in season 1994/5, in Serie A, scoring three goals. He had been trumpeted by the Roman Press as a white hope for the future, but in November, 1995, they shuffled him off to Verona in Serie B then, and never took him back to Rome.

On, still in Series B, to Bari in 1996/7 where things still weren't working; only three goals in 27 games. But the air of the South at Salerno seemed to revive di Vaio; 21 goals in 36 games in season 1997/8 materially helped Salernitana gain Serie A. He is now in his third season at Parma and looking the striker he promised to be.

Look much further back and you have the remarkable case of Stanley Matthews, perhaps the greatest winger ever to play for England, an outside-right whose longevity amazed, and who became the first ever European Footballer of the Year. Born in Hanley in the Midlands' potteries, Stan was playing for local Stoke City by the age of 16. During the war however he served in the Royal Air Force and played as a guest for the seaside club of Blackpool.

The war over, he returned to Stoke City but fell out bitterly with the manager, Bob McGrory, who sensationally dropped him from the team early in the first full post war season, 1946/7. It was an intolerable situation and in May 1947, just after Stanley had excelled for Great Britain against the Rest of Europe at Hampden Park (6-1), he was officially transferred to Blackpool, where he stayed for 14 years. They were a power in the land then, three times reaching the FA Cup final. Then in 1961, at the age of 46, Stan returned to play, and play most effectively, for his old love Stoke City.

Meanwhile, this season in Italy, how many of their opponents are regretting the way they've let good players to amazing little Chievo, the team which has battled itself up from obscurity to reach Serie A for the first time. Players who, either picked up on the cheap or for the moment on loan, have been more than the equals of those from the supposedly bigger clubs such as Lazio and Inter.

Such as the incisive 27-year-old striker, Massimo Marazina, initially on Inter's books, getting just three Serie A games in season 1993/4 before being sent on his travels. A couple of seasons in A and B with Foggia, before Chievo brought him to Verona. Not till 2000 did he get briefly back into Serie A with struggling Reggina - 5 goals in 29 games - before returning to Chievo, where he'd spent the previous four seasons in B. What would he be worth on the transfer market now?

Just as with Lazio and di Vaio, Roma let that swift, dangerous centre-forward Roberto Muzzi depart, after six uneasy seasons. The Roman-born Muzzi joined Pisa in Serie B in November 1993, briefly returned to Roma then was allowed to move to Cagliari where he scored freely for five years. In 1999, Udinese bought him and now, at 30, he's one of the most consistent strikers in Serie A, recently said to be coveted by Juventus. He may not stay in Udine for long, but Roma may still have their regrets. Even if he did, this season, miss a penalty against them. Not quite immutable!