Two years on from Sven-Goran Eriksson’s quick gamble on Theo Walcott, and the flutter has finally paid off for England. The then 17-year-old’s selection for the 2006 World Cup was a surprise at the time and a mistake in retrospect. Eriksson found the youngster was not quite the player he expected and felt unable to entrust him with a role in the team.
But at the grand old age of 19, Walcott has shaken off that stigma of failure following his stunning hat-trick in England’s 1-4 away win in Croatia last night.
The youngster has taken his fair share of criticism and scrutiny in the 27 months since he didn’t play in the World Cup. Even the normally overprotective Arsene Wenger has taken the occasional pop at his young protégé, including suggesting that the ex-Southampton player was not progressing at the rate he had expected.
If Walcott looked like being the latest next-big-thing to fall by the wayside, he now seems to be firmly back on track. His early season form for Arsenal has been very impressive and had clearly caught the eye of Fabio Capello. Unlike Eriksson, Capello has found a mature young man who is growing in confidence and increasingly aware of how to maximise his threat on the football pitch. Perhaps Wenger is so psychologically astute as to recognise a young player in need of a kick up the arse via the media. Or maybe the Arsenal boss is equally as pleasantly surprised at Walcott’s sudden rise to prominence as the rest of us.
Walcott’s emergence onto the international scene is not exactly a bolt from the blue. It has been a slow rise to success for one with such pace. Thanks to his now infamous presence in the World Cup squad, he seems like he should be ready to collect his pension – one of those players who seems to have been around for ages. Throughout last season he showed glimpses of excellence, and it was evident that a touch more consistency would make him quite a player. Ironically, it was often his finishing and final ball which came in for criticism. And yet his display last night earned him praise for these aspects of his game from the opposition coach. Slaven Bilic said: “He is lightening quick and a great finisher. He scored two goals from not so easy positions, he just hit the corner. It is hard to mark him. That is why he is an England international and why he is at Arsenal.”
And that is why he will no doubt remain at Arsenal. So many of Wenger’s youngsters do not quite make the grade in his eyes and are moved on to pastures new, but you suspect this will not be the case with Walcott. He always had outstanding potential, but now he is beginning to reach that potential. Do not be surprised to see a return to wayward shooting and poor crossing as Walcott continues to develop at club and international level, but he has earned some breathing space for himself.
Is Walcott the real deal? Or was his hat-trick against 10-man Croatia a flash in the pan?