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Football: Fowler likely to join Shearer

KEVIN KEEGAN is an ebullient man, but even he is beginning to get depressed by the task of issuing daily medical bulletins on his squad. Playing the role of a doctor's receptionist was not, to coin a phrase, what he saw in the brochure when he agreed to be England coach.

The latest withdrawal from his squad for the European Championship qualifiers against Luxembourg on Saturday and Poland on Wednesday is David Seaman, the Arsenal goalkeeper who has bowed to the inevitable, having not played at all this season. His departure with a calf injury is not a surprise nor a major problem, assuming Nigel Martyn remains fit. The Leeds goalkeeper has been in impressive form and now has the chance to establish himself in the No 1 jersey.

At least the strikers remain fit and it is when the conversation turns to them that the enthusiasm surges back into Keegan's voice. England are blessed with a number of high quality forwards at present and he is well aware of his fortune.

"It is lovely to work with the best and they're all so different," he said after training at Bisham Abbey. "In Chris Sutton I see someone who is big but has got very good feet. In Robbie Fowler I see someone who is left-footed but scores with his right often enough to make you worried. Like Arsenal on Saturday, they back-tracked, and he went left, right, left, right, and forced the keeper into a great save.

"I see Michael Owen, just sheer pace and lack of respect, not in a nasty way, in a `I will take you on' way, like he did to the Argentinian defence.

"I still see in Alan Shearer the stubbornness and the leadership qualities and this, you know, `yes, prove them wrong' resistance because he's had to do that a lot of times in his career and not just now. Then there's Kevin Phillips, and Teddy Sheringham, and you could throw Andy Cole [who is not in the squad] in to that if you want."

The problem for Keegan is who to play against Luxembourg on Saturday, and Poland next week. He insists, despite the captain's lack of form, that it is Shearer plus one - or two.

"He will definitely start," said Keegan. "You might say, `doesn't that put him under more pressure?' I don't think people like Shearer can be put under any more pressure. Every time they step on the field they are under pressure.

"I think what Shearer has to try to do now is draw a line. There has been massive upheaval at his club and he has taken his share of flak, some of it over the top."

So, who partners him? In the past Shearer has worked well with Sutton for Blackburn and both Sheringham and, in their one outing, Phillips, for England. Owen, if fully fit, would appear the most formidable partner but there is a question mark over how well they combine. Fowler, meanwhile, is in the richest form.

Keegan's subsequent comments suggested the most likely starting partner for Shearer is Fowler, possibly with Sheringham behind them, even though that trio failed to impress against Bulgaria in June. Sutton and Owen would be options from the bench.

"Was I excited by Robbie on Saturday? Who wouldn't be? I thought his performance was, at times, breathtaking. He stood out like a beacon, it was as well as I have seen him play `live'.

"He has matured. He's always been a kid who has done really well. Now he's a young man. He's had a kiddie which, as I said to him, means even more responsibility. He has to be given the chance to thrive on that responsibility and handle it. Maybe he has not been given that before but now Gerard Houllier has made him vice-captain at Liverpool and he's responding to that."

Owen only got a couple of minutes on Saturday and, though Keegan thought he needed the match less than `a big defender like Sol Campbell' [who, as expected, returned injured to Tottenham yesterday], he felt his sharpness and stamina might be affected.

With one eye on the Poland match he thus indicated that Owen would either start or finish on Saturday but was unlikely to do both.

That hints at a preference for Owen and Shearer, despite post-World Cup evidence that they do not gel well. "That's fair comment," said Keegan, "but that doesn't mean they're not capable of playing really well together. We're judging them on one game all the time; sometimes after a three-month break. I don't think there is a clash of egos. I think there's a youthfulness about one and a maturity about the other, so there's no reason, bearing in mind the ability of the two, why they can't play together.

"Against Argentina [in the World Cup], before it was disrupted [by David Beckham's dismissal], I didn't see too much wrong with it."

Yet it all hinges on Shearer's mood. In response to the suggestion that he and Sutton played well together at Blackburn, Keegan inadvertently pinpointed the problem with the captain's state of mind.

"At that time they were playing in a team full of confidence, a team that was to go on and win the championship. That is a big factor in football. Alan has not been playing in a side full of confidence. It does affect you when you're up front. You can't quite do the things a midfield player and defender can do in terms of getting involved because of the position you play in the side."

Since England are not exactly playing with confidence either it is, perhaps, a blessing that they meet Luxembourg first. A few Shearer goals against the part-timers and everything could look much rosier when England set off for Warsaw on Monday.