Late arrival of Fowler echoes '66

INTERNATIONAL FOOTBALL: Venables prepares for Euro 96 with three new faces as Clark reflects on Uefa Cup frailties
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The Independent Online
Football Correspondent

The door is still ajar, but only just. After trying 58 players in two years, Terry Venables appears to have settled on his final 30. Now begins the process of whittling this group down to 22 for the summer's European Championship.

The first step is on Wednesday, when England play their 15th match under Venables, against Bulgaria at Wembley. The squad for that match, which was named at the Waldorf Hotel yesterday, includes three newcomers to the Venables regime - Robbie Fowler, Phil Neville and Mark Wright.

They are among the most interesting selections he has made. Fowler will attract most attention, as goalscorers do. Already he has been compared to Jimmy Greaves, because of their similar predatory instincts, and Roger Hunt, the noted Liverpool striker.

Yesterday, however, Geoff Hurst was being recalled, not for any stylistic resemblance but because Hurst, the hero of the 1966 World Cup final, did not make his international debut until February of that year. Can Fowler make an equally late, but devastating, impact?

Venables will hope so, those who watch him regularly will believe so. In three seasons he has scored 79 goals for Liverpool, many of them finished with great quality. Venables himself has compared him to Greaves but Alan Mullery, a contemporary of Greaves and regular observer of the Premiership, feels that Fowler lacks Greaves' all-round game at the same age. At present he would compare him to Gary Lineker - still an impressive comparison.

Fowler, 20, first joined the England squad at the beginning of last season when he, Jamie Redknapp, Nick Barmby and Sol Campbell were invited to train with the senior team for experience. The others have already been in the senior squad by right and, had it not been for his involvement in a hotel room incident with the Under-21s, Fowler would have too. Under Roy Evans' thoughtful care he has since matured, as a player and a person.

Wright is another to benefit from Evans' guidance, though it took a while. The 32-year-old was a leading figure in England's path to the World Cup semi-finals in 1990 but fell from grace two years later when, on the eve of the European Championship, he suddenly disclosed an ankle injury.

Graham Taylor never forgave him and he won one more cap, in September 1992, before being dropped. He then lost favour with Evans who took exception to his and Julian Dicks' attitude during pre-season training in 1994 and dropped them both. Dicks soon left but Wright won his place back and is now keeping Neil Ruddock out of the Liverpool team. His ability to step out of the back four is admired by Venables and his experience compensates for the loss of Tony Adams and Gary Pallister with injury.

The other new face, Phil Neville, joins his elder brother Gary as the first siblings in the national squad since Jack and Bobby Charlton - another echo of '66. Phil Neville, at 19, has already kept his 21-year-old brother out of the Manchester United side. Although he has played just 28 first team matches, Venables clearly regards him as a better prospect than Alan Wright or John Beresford.

Similarly Ugo Ehiogu, previously called up, but not capped, as a replacement 16 months ago, has been preferred to John Scales, Colin Cooper, Campbell and Ruddock. That quartet, the rejected left-backs, Stan Collymore, David Batty, Warren Barton, John Barnes and Paul Merson, will now find it very hard to win a place in the summer squad. All have been tried by Venables, who has capped 40 players. No one could accuse him of not casting the net wide.

With a full weekend programme, including both a cup final for Aston Villa and a crucial League match between Manchester United and Tottenham on Sunday, there may be some call-offs. Those that do make the Wembley turf will be thoroughly tested: Bulgaria, remember, were World Cup semi-finalists.

ENGLAND SQUAD (International friendly v Bulgaria, Wembley, 27 March): Seaman (Arsenal), Walker (Tottenham), Flowers (Blackburn); R Jones, Wright (both Liverpool), Howey (Newcastle), G Neville, P Neville (both Manchester Utd), Southgate, Ehiogu (both Aston Villa), Pearce, Stone (both Nottingham Forest), Sinclair (Queen's Park Rangers), Redknapp, McManaman (both Liverpool), Gascoigne (Rangers), Platt (Arsenal), Ince (Internazionale), Wise (Chelsea), Lee, Beardsley, Ferdinand (all Newcastle), Fowler (Liverpool), Shearer (Blackburn), Sheringham (Tottenham), Barmby (Middlesbrough).