James Lawton: Capello shows hard edge by axing Walcott
Fabio Capello yesterday cast Theo Walcott aside even more briskly than he stripped the captaincy from John Terry.
Who said the hard edge of Il Capo might just be softening, even crumbling a little, under the weight of recent controversies?
The latest evidence is quite to the contrary, suggesting as it does that England's coach may be one of the least easily distracted – and sentimental – individuals on the football planet.
He ended his Walcott project, the one that started so gloriously in Zagreb when the Arsenal winger devastated England's nemesis Croatia and provided unstoppable momentum to the qualifying campaign, for the reason that you have to believe is the key to his competitive personality. He put aside all speculation about the potential of Walcott to make an impact in South Africa, the theoretical impact of his demoralising speed, and asked the hardest question a coach ever asks a player.
It is the one that goes, "What did you do for me today, son?"
Capello weighed the answers produced by Walcott in England's last two warm-up games and concluded that it simply wasn't good enough. He did not want a flash or two of penetration, more evidence that at times he could fly by a full-back as though he didn't exist.
No, he wanted a sense that Walcott had truly faced up to the challenge of first getting on the plane to South Africa, then making the trip worthwhile. When he did not get it, the thumbs-down sign came as dispassionately as any delivered from the emperor's box in the Coliseum and Walcott, who has always been tomorrow's boy, was suddenly yesterday's casualty.
This is not the hardest decision ever made by an England manager, not remotely – the prize for that will always surely be the exclusion of a truly great player, Jimmy Greaves, from the final stages of the 1966 World Cup. But it did underline one of the reasons why so many in English football have been tempted to believe that in Capello the national team has, for the first time in more than a decade, acquired a leader who is prepared to constantly update his appreciation of his best resources.
This was hardly the style of England in the last three World Cup campaigns. Glenn Hoddle was slow to recognise the instant value of Michael Owen's speed and striking ability and the need for him to build up some serious playing time in the company of Alan Shearer. Sven Goran Eriksson took a half-fit David Beckham and Owen to the Far East, and left himself woefully under-strength up front in Germany four years ago, when Wayne Rooney was asked to carry a huge burden while plainly hampered by injury.
It is true that Capello has been obliged to take risks with Ledley King and, maybe, Gareth Barry, but here there is a strong sense that he is operating at the limits of available strength.
If there was any doubt about this it was surely expunged when he went in to the past and called up Jamie Carragher and, unavailingly, Paul Scholes. The same might be said of Capello's decision yesterday to retain Michael Carrick, a player who seemed to have made a bonfire of his hopes against Mexico last week. Carrick's undoubted ability was obscured by a season of, at times, dire under-performance for Manchester United, but in this case it seems that Capello felt bereft of the options presented in Walcott's position.
What Capello appears to be saying so clearly with the dropping of Walcott is that he will operate whenever he can in the belief that he is picking players who have proved to him that they have the competitive character to survive at the highest level of the game and under the heaviest pressure they will ever face – and that when it comes to final selection he will consider only those he believes have passed the essential tests.
Plainly, Walcott failed the ones set him in the last week or so while Aaron Lennon and Shaun Wright-Phillips – players who for some of us lack the kind of clean and dynamic impact promised by Walcott, and the also discarded Adam Johnson on their better days – offered evidence of superior will as Capello came to make his decisions.
Lennon and Wright-Phillips looked like men who knew they had everything to fight for amid the chaos of the weekend's action against Japan. Walcott, in Capello's eyes perhaps, had more the bearing of someone who believed that he had a little time, and a little credit, to spare.
The consequences will surely be noted by every England player who heads off for the training field on the highveld tomorrow. They know now, if they didn't before, that they are subject to the analysis of a man who plainly believes that there is only one place to live a football career. It is in the day, the moment.
England's moment of maximum opportunity came eight years ago on a hot afternoon in Japan when Brazil, who at times looked like a parody of their great tradition, were reduced to 10 men in the second half. The World Cup final was two games away and the obligation facing England was to apply a little weight and a little creativity in attack. Instead, they failed to muster a serious shot on goal and while Eriksson sat mostly impassively, the young Joe Cole stayed on the bench and fretted.
The memory is made more vivid now by Capello's decision to offer the Chelsea player the chance to finally treat an open wound. It is, perhaps, another piece of evidence that England go to South Africa with a heightened sense that their destiny is being shaped by the most rigorous attention to the important matter of who most wants to succeed.
Some may see a touch of cruelty in the sidelining of Theo Walcott. For Fabio Capello, though, it was nothing to do with brutality. It was simply about what he is paid to do: it was deciding who is a winner and who is a loser, not tomorrow, but today.