FOWLER'S FUTURE PLAGUED BY THE SHADOW OF MACCA; AS the speculation on Merseyside surrounding Robbie Fowler reaches fever pitch, Liverpool Correspondent Chris Bascombe analyses the dilemma facing the famous number nine and his club.
ROBBIE Fowler says he wants to stay at Liverpool. Liverpool say they want Robbie Fowler to stay.
But with every passing day the sad prospect of a separation looms.
Head for your newsagent every morning and you'll have a premonition you're about to sense deja vu.
Fowler will be linked to Leeds, or Chelsea, or Lazio, or Blackburn. Just like he was last week, month, year and century. And you won't hear any of the clubs involved denying they want him.
For Liverpool, Fowler and his supporters, it's frustrating. At its worst it's annoying and unsettling. He is the most talked about player at the club and more often than not the rumours are just recycled trash.
But the contract issue is one which can be ignored no longer and Leeds are on the verge of bringing matters to a head with a pounds 10m bid.
The potential transfer is imminent.
Only when a new contract has been signed can the persistent speculation be dismissed.
The same clubs will continue to be linked with the player for the simple reason they want him. Chelsea made a pounds 12m bid last year which was accepted by the club but rejected by the player.
Blackburn have publicly spoken of their admiration for Fowler. Despite public denials, Graeme Souness is raising funds for a bid as we speak and would probably offer more than anyone. Glasgow Rangers are also a possible destination.
As for Lazio, they try and sign everyone.
With the 18 months Fowler has left on his existing deal starting to evaporate, for all the uncomfortable shuffling it may cause, these clubs' interest will not be discouraged.
To understand the dilemma Liverpool currently face you need only to consider two words. Steve McManaman.
When McManaman, as he was perfectly entitled to, left Anfield on a free Bosman transfer in 1999, an asset worth pounds 12m walked out of the door.
Liverpool acknowledge it was a mistake to have kept the winger for so long, not because of his qualities as a player, but because it is financial suicide to allow valuable stars leave for nothing.
McManaman is so far the only truly worthy Liverpool player to exploit the Bosman ruling and the club vowed never to allow it to happen again. The fear is growing that Fowler can try and become the second and that's something Gerard Houllier has stated publicly he will not tolerate.
Talk of form, bust-ups and rotation policies is nothing more than a smokescreen. As Houllier said last summer, it doesn't matter if it's Owen or Fowler, players who didn't sign would have to go. Owen signed.
So if Liverpool want Fowler and Fowler still wants Liverpool what's the problem?
Preliminary contract talks broke down during the summer, since when there's been no comment from the player and club on the stalemate.
However, with Leeds waiting in the wings, crunch talks are looming.
Fowler, like any player, wants the right deal and the pros and cons of staying must give him headaches. On the one hand he loves the club, the area, is desperate to score goals for his beloved fans and can see Liverpool is a club which will improve his medal collection.
On the other, he now realises his current role is as a squad player. He is a world class understudy to Michael Owen and Emile Heskey. As a player desperate for regular first team football he is understandably frustrated.
Most other clubs do not have players of the calibre of Owen and Heskey blocking a regular place in the first team. Anywhere else, Fowler would be the number one striker. He's no longer top dog at Anfield and the superb form of the first choice pairing is keeping him on the bench.
Whereas Fowler's last contract was, at the time, the most lucrative Liverpool have ever offered, on this occasion he's unlikely to command the same deal recently agreed with Owen. Owen's market value is now significantly higher.
And although financial considerations will not be top of Fowler's list of priorities, there's no hiding the fact he will also get more money if he leaves, especially as a Bosman transfer presents the opportunity for huge signing on fees.
So Fowler's position is more powerful as the clock ticks. He doesn't have to leave. If Liverpool accepted a bid of pounds 10m tomorrow, Fowler wouldn't have to go.
He doesn't want to go. But the circumstances he requires to make him sign a new deal may no longer exist.
Liverpool don't want to sell him. But the circumstances required to keep him may no longer exist.
Romantics will no doubt proclaim Liverpool should offer Fowler whatever he wants to make him stay.
That's as ludicrous an argument as the one stating if Fowler wants to stay, he ought to simply sign whatever is put in front of him.
The ideal solution shouldn't be ruled out and although negotiations have been on hold, they aren't over yet and are now an urgent priority.
Fowler is still part of Liverpool's plans even if a cloud hovers uncomfortably over his future.
What is clear is the end game is well underway. If he doesn't sign a new deal he will be available for transfer. That will happen sooner rather than later.
OVER TO YOU ROBBIE: If the Reds accepted a pounds 10m bid he wouldn't have to go COSTLY MISTAKE: When McManaman left Anfield on a free Bosman transfer in 1999, an asset worth pounds 12m walked out of the door.