Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 18 September 2014

Where did it all go wrong for Walcott?

Theo Walcott rifles home one of his three goals against Croatia but he has been left out of Fabio Capello’s World Cup squad
Theo Walcott will not be part of England's World Cup squad for South Africa

A glance back through my notebooks from England's 2010 World Cup qualifying campaign yesterday yielded a few words from Fabio Capello that, in the light of his latest bombshell proved telling.

They date back to the night in Croatia in September 2008 when Theo Walcott's hat-trick had got the Capello bandwagon rolling.

Afterwards, at the Maksimir Stadium a few of us crowded around Capello to ask him about the night his then 19-year-old striker had come of age and whether it was going to be a problem keeping Walcott's feet on the ground?

“No, I just say to the players that it is their second competitive game under me,” Capello said. “It is a long way until we arrive in South Africa. We have to play every game like this evening.”

Say what you like about Capello and he has just been through the most erratic three weeks of his England regime, but he never made any promises he could not keep. He gave Walcott every chance to build on that performance in Croatia when at last he looked like the player Sven- Goran Eriksson, more than two years' earlier, had hoped he would be.

Against Croatia it seemed that Walcott would be one of the cornerstones of this World Cup team. In the following 19 months Capello unfailingly picked him when he was fit and available; until, that is, yesterday lunchtime when he dropped the winger from his World Cup squad.

By all accounts, Walcott had a torrid time in training during England's pre-World Cup stay in Austria. His old fault of over-running the ball plagued him again even when not under pressure. He was one of just four players who started both matches against Mexico and Japan and a few early runs in the first game aside, he looked completely off the pace.

When the England manager said after the victory over Japan on Sunday that nothing he had seen that afternoon had changed his mind he was not kidding. No-one had made the assumption that an aimless performance from Walcott, in which he consistently lost the ball had confirmed to the England manager that his hero of Zagreb was no longer up to it.

It is often forgotten that Walcott is still extremely young — in fact he was only 21 in March and he does not always get the credit for what he has achieved thus far in his career. The most trenchant criticism of him has come from Chris Waddle who, when commentating on the Egypt game, accused Walcott of failing to understand the game. Few players that young could hope to understand it as well as Waddle once did, but the criticism has stuck.

Perhaps that was what Capello thought as Walcott ran into countless dead ends against Japan. Walcott is, after all, 20 months younger than Adam Johnson whom Capello considers one for the future. There is no reason why Walcott cannot finally make a World Cup appearance after his 2006 false start, although yesterday is likely to have proved a chastening experience.

It was, according to the Capello camp, not an easy decision to pick one from Walcott, Aaron Lennon and Shaun Wright-Phillips to leave behind. Nevertheless, given Walcott's earlier pre-eminence among those three it is hard not to think that the Arsenal man played himself out the squad rather than Wright-Phillips in particular playing himself in. Either way, it is a spectacular fall from grace.

Walcott has lost his place to two right wingers who have never really hit the heights for Capello. Injury meant that Lennon did not even play in a Capello England team until the Italian was almost two years into the job and Wright-Phillips has only ever started five games under him.

Before yesterday, if you had to name Capello's favourites, then Walcott would have figured highly among them.

Against Mexico and Japan last month, he was fast-tracked straight back into the team by Capello. Looking back, Capello gave him every opportunity to recapture the form of Zagreb.

Walcott’s best moment of the season had come against Barcelona in the Champions League tie at the Emirates when he scored one goal and helped Arsenal fight back from 2-0 down. Had the season finished then he would surely have gone to the World Cup but, as Capello said, it has been a long road to South Africa and not all stayed the pace.

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