Fowler's truce may mask eve of civil war

Liverpool claim points despite distraction of dispute with striker
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The Independent Football

Peace broke out yesterday between Robbie Fowler and Gérard Houllier, with the player apologising for his row with the Liverpool manager's assistant, Phil Thompson, and Houllier announcing: "Robbie has put the good of the club and the team first, and I'm very pleased it has been resolved."

Perhaps wisely, though, the manager did not wave a piece of paper and announce that Liverpool had peace in their time. What they have, it seems most likely, is an accommodation. The reality is that Houllier's rotation system and Fowler's hunger to play in all the big games are not going to go away.

On Saturday the player left his seat in the stands shortly after Michael Owen, for a second time, gave Liverpool an edge they scarcely deserved. He was cheered on his way to a no doubt angst-filled Saturday night. Talk about poignancy. Even "scallies" cry.

Meanwhile, some fans were rallying to the cause of Houllier. There were rival chants for Fowler and Houllier. It sounded a bit like the eve of civil war, a state of affairs confirmed later when Houllier confirmed that Fowler's options could scarcely be more straight forward. He had to apologise or go.

"What is he thinking about?" asked Houllier. "He knows what he has to do. He is acting as if he wants away." Maybe, maybe not. If Houllier was running a factory production line or a team of salesmen his simplification of Fowler's situation might pass muster, but that is not his job. It is to coax along a bunch of footballers whose general level of personality security probably would not guarantee a crisis-free trip to the local supermarket.

Historically, footballers, Houllier is no doubt aware, have appalling levels of self-doubt and plainly not all of it has been erased by an era of instant financial security. The truth is that players, real players, want to do nothing more than play. This is particularly true of strikers, who live from game to game between the heaven of hitting the back of the net and the hell of missing it. Owen, who has never been more confident in his ability to score, is currently in heaven and Fowler just as emphatically in the other place. Admirers of his natural talent, arguably the richest of any native front player, can only worry that his problems will resurface soon enough.

Houllier, who has reinstated Fowler in the squad for the coming games with the Finnish team Haka in the Champions' League qualifying stage and the Super Cup with Bayern Munich, had said that Fowler knew that a simply apology would solve the problem. The trouble is he did not know that – and almost certainly still does not.

What he knows most clearly is that for Houllier "rotation" is not so much a handy option as an article of faith, and no doubt he finds the idea of waiting around until Owen and Jari Litmanen pass out from exhaustion less than appealing.

Fowler also sees such strikers as Thierry Henry and Ruud van Nistelrooy assuming that their names will be on the team-sheet as surely as the rise of the sun. What the latest conflict was probably most about was Houllier's reluctance to transfer-list the local hero on a point of serious indiscipline, and then see him score goals on a regular basis for a possible title rival, while Fowler, for entirely different reasons, and not least financial, would have preferred to be moved out on the manager's initiative rather than his own request. There is also the sharp point of Fowler's immediate future for England. Sven Goran Eriksson, not a man to unnecessarily apply extra pressure to any situation, has already pointed out that a prerequisite of international appearances is regular first- team football. It means that the likeliest outcome, despite a frosty, wordless moment when the manager and the player passed on the Anfield stairs on Saturday night, was yesterday's compromise, which is almost the prelude to a transfer deal.

Merseyside phone-ins are apparently running neck and neck. One half of town reveres the aura of the local boy, and it is a gut affection that even the magnificently activated Owen might find difficult to completely supplant, and the other gives unto Houllier what is his: a brilliant record of renewal at Anfield, with four trophies in six months, and a duty to impose discipline on an uppity, rebellious star. The manager, though, does not need telling that his support is based almost entirely on the presumption of continued success.

Without Owen's razored finishing against a well organised and resolute West Ham, that would have seemed by no means inevitable on Saturday. Houllier agreed that the chief virtue of victory was that it was achieved on a bad day, something that was far from guaranteed even a year ago. However, without Owen the chances were that Liverpool would have lost. They were desperately short of width, with both Igor Biscan and Danny Murphy exploring at times the very limits of futility, which meant that in the middle Gary McCallister and Dietmar Hamman carried a huge creative burden, one at which the still recovering Jamie Redknapp could only nibble when he replaced Murphy after 72 minutes.

Fortunately, both McAllister and Hamman were more than equal to the job. McAllister played with unfailing wit and Hamman was at his functional best. Both also managed to get the ball to Owen at vital moments, which meant that West Ham's impressive work, with the best of it coming from the visionary Michael Carrick, came to nothing.

Owen's extraordinary run of sublime effectiveness – he has scored six in his last three games – only adds to the pain of Fowler's situation. The overwhelming truth is that Owen's fecundity has come in direct proportion to his exposure to first-team football. Less than a year ago, Houllier was announcing that Owen had to prove himself "a man for England." Owen has done that spectacularly enough. It means that we can only guess at the frustration of the equally talented Fowler. Rotation may have its points, but thus far for Fowler equal opportunity has not been one of them.

Liverpool 2 West Ham United 1

Goals: Owen (18) 1-0; Di Canio (pen 30) 1-1; Owen (77) 2-1.

Liverpool (4-4-2): Arphexad 5; Babbel 4 (Riise 6, h-t), Henchoz 5, Hyppia 5, Carragher 4; Murphy 3 (Redknapp 5, 72), Hamman 6, McAllister 7, Biscan 2 (Barmby 5, 56); Owen 9, Litmanen 5. Substitutes not used: Nielsen (gk), Traoré.

West Ham United (4-4-2): Hislop 5; Schemmel 5, Dailly 4, Song 5, Winterburn 6; Sinclair 5, Carrick 8, Moncur 5 (McCann 5, 72), Cole 5 (Cortois, 80); Todorov 4 (Defoe 5, 70), Di Canio 4. Substitutes not used: Forrest (gk), Soma.

Referee: J Winter (Stockton-on-Tees) 4.

Bookings: Liverpool: Carragher. West Ham: Dailly, Todorov, Sinclair, Di Canio.

Man of the match: Owen.

Attendance: 43, 935.

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