Sexton is convinced of Fowler's maturity

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Robbie Fowler's progression to the senior England squad moved a step closer after another impressive display by the Liverpool striker.

Fowler's disappointment at the Under-21's exit from their European Championship, despite Tuesday night's 2-1 victory over Austria, could be eased with a part in Terry Venables' plans for the main event next summer.

The 20-year-old scored England's first goal and set up Neil Shipperley for the winner at the Riverside Stadium, earning him the plaudits of the the Under-21 head coach, Dave Sexton.

"If you put him in the side, he would not be out of place," Sexton said. "Anyone with his kind of talent must have a chance. I saw him play against Manchester United when he got both Liverpool's goals. His second was a brilliant finish. He is capable of that, yet is still a young man."

Fowler, sent off in the victory over Austria last year, demonstrated there is more to his game than scoring (last night's goal was his 13th of the season) with a superb flick to supply the pass for England's decisive goal from Shipperley.

"The lay-off he did for our second goal was tremendous," said Sexton, whose side responded after Fowler's opener was quickly cancelled out by a 30-yard drive from Harald Cerny.

Fowler formed an effective partnership with Shipperley, while there were also commendable displays from the Newcastle players, Robbie Elliott and Steve Watson.

However, England ended their qualifying campaign one point behind Portugal, who progressed to the quarter-finals with a 3-1 defeat of the Republic of Ireland.

When they next gather, they could be under new stewardship, with Sexton suggesting that after 20 years in charge, apart from a three-year break in the early 1980s, he might now make way for his assistant Ray Wilkins. "Nothing has been said so far," said Sexton, who is not under contract for the part-time post. "I am happy to do the job, especially at my age. But if they want a younger man to come in - if they want Ray to take over - then I am quite happy to step down at any time."

Maurice Setters, the manager of the Republic of Ireland Under-21 team, will not lodge an official protest against the referee whose controversial decision helped produce a result which put England's youngsters out of the championship. Portugal beat the Republic 3-1 in Leiria to finish top of their qualifying group and edge out second-placed England.

But their crucial second goal, 24 minutes from the end, came when the Spurs defender Owen Coll was lying injured. Even when the ball went out of play for a throw-in, the Croatian referee, Mateo Beusan, refused to let Coll be treated or substituted. Within seconds, the Portugese substitute Sergio Conceicao scored.

Setters, the former Manchester United and West Bromwich defender, said: "It was clear the referee should have stopped it and perhaps there is a case for us protesting.

"But I don't think we want to take it that far. I was only thinking of my own team, not England, but Portugal were a better side than us and deserved to win. Certainly, though, the referee didn't do us any favours."