After the shambolic way in which the FA decided to announce the 23 players England would be taking to the World Cup this summer – via the aid of social networking site Twitter – we were left with a few surprises. The likes of Leighton Baines, Tom Huddlestone and Darren Bent might have reflected on how much more they could realistically have done to further their chances. All arguably in the richest vein of form in their young careers, they would have felt harshly done by after being dropped in favour of players in poor form – while a young man who grew up in Newbury would have been distraught at missing out when a place on the plane was only his to lose.
Four years ago England went to Germany with the Coach Sven Goran Eriksson popping a surprise player into his squad – a relatively unheard of 17-year-old called Theo Walcott. With only six months of professional football under his belt playing for south coast side Southampton, Walcott was signed up by Arsenal – Arsene Wenger acting characteristically swiftly in pursuit of refreshing young talent. What surprised the public most was the fact that this fresh-faced youngster hadn’t represented Arsenal, yet he was deemed good enough to go to the World Cup.
Although Walcott did not manage a minute of playing time that summer, he was a player we all followed. We believed we could have a new superstar in the making. Like previous tournaments when Michael Owen and Wayne Rooney had broadcasted their talents on the biggest stage, we knew it would only be a matter of time for Walcott. Propelled to media attention and half way through his first playing season for the Gunners, he had already won the BBC Young Sports Personality of the Year. The expectancy was now fully in place.
Walcott’s first cap came under Fabio Capello’s stewardship: in England’s opening World Cup 2010 qualifying match vs. Andorra on 6 September 2008. The lightning fast winger whetted our appetite. After seeing fans’ favourite David Beckham command that right-wing spot for over a decade, it was time for a change – and, in the modern-day, wingers need to be fast and nobody is quicker than Walcott. In the following match against Croatia he put himself firmly on the radar of world football. Over in Zagreb he scored a hat-trick as England roamed to a 4-1 thrashing, becoming the youngest player in the history of this nation to achieve that feat.
Since then Walcott has been hampered by injury and had not represented England for nine months before returning for the friendly against Egypt in March. His lack of impact in that game led to Chris Waddle’s infamous remarks: “I just don’t think he’s got a football brain and he’s going to have problems. Let’s be honest, good defenders would catch him offside every time.” Yet it didn’t appear to matter Walcott had done relatively nothing since the three goals against Croatia – he seemed to be in Fabio Capello’s good books. However, the speedy winger disappointed during last month’s friendlies against Mexico and Japan. Against Japan in particular, Walcott failed to take the game by the scruff of the neck and this diffidence has cost him his shot in South Africa, where this time around he deserves it more than in 2006.
Walcott’s exclusion came as a shock to the many pundits and fans who viewed him as our wildcard. With Aaron Lennon terrorising defenders for 70 minutes, the prospect of bringing Walcott on in the latter stages was an enticing one – he would get behind tiring defences with ease. But ultimately, Walcott’s lack of form and match sharpness have cost him his place, as Capello confirmed today: “It was a really hard decision because I know Theo was important during the qualification games for the World Cup,” said the Italian. “But after his shoulder problem and the operation he did not play too many games for Arsenal and he was not the same player that we knew before this injury.”
Meanwhile, Walcott’s replacement Shaun Wright-Phillips is experienced, but does he bring more to the team? You could say his end product is better but Wright-Phillips has suffered a stop-start season, struggling for game time because of injury, loss of form and the arrival of Adam Johnson to his club. So the City winger’s selection seems to go against Capello’s so-called beliefs and perhaps contradicts his reasons for excluding Walcott. Wright-Phillips likewise has yet to cement himself as an international footballer, but overall it was probably a safer call. Hopefully Walcott will use the devastation to respond in the correct manner. If he can get his head down and put in a solid pre-season for Arsenal and stay injury free, he will finally get playing time, the lack of which has hindered his progress thus far. He will be back, but he must be wondering why the World Cup seems to be an odd omen for him.