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Is Theo Walcott tomorrow’s, today’s or yesterday’s man?

Just as four years ago, Theo Walcott was the name on most people’s lips when the final England squad of 23 players for the World Cup was announced earlier this week. But whereas in 2006 everyone was amazed by his inclusion in the squad – having played the grand total of zero minutes of Premier League football to that point – this time the shock was at his exclusion.

But should we really have been so surprised?

Yesterday’s next big thing, today’s discarded play-thing

I cannot think of a single pundit who thought there was any realistic chance of Walcott spending the next month on the golf course rather than the stadia of South Africa, and yet if you ask any Arsenal fan their opinion of Walcott this season they will tell you of their frustration at his lack of development.

Of course, there are mitigating circumstances. A catalogue of shoulder, back, hamstring and knee problems restricted him to only 15 Arsenal starts all season, and when he did play he frequently lacked confidence and produced little. In fact, I can only recall two occasions all season – 45 minutes against Burnley and half an hour at home to Barcelona – where he showed the kind of incisive form which many have come to expect week-in week-out ever since his stunning hat-trick for England in Zagreb nearly two years ago.

But too often he has been a peripheral and ineffectual figure – isolated on the touchline, running down blind alleys with the ball, unable to find a colleague having beaten his defender – drawing observations such as the following from Chris Waddle, speaking on 5Live in March:

I’ve never seen him develop. He just doesn’t understand the game for me – where to be running, when to run inside a full-back, (when to) just play a one-two.

People keep saying to me, ‘Oh he’s young and he’ll learn.’

I keep thinking, ‘Fabregas has learnt and he’s young, Rooney has learnt … they all read the game so well.’

I just don’t think he’s got a football brain and he’s going to have problems.

Many Arsenal fans took umbrage at Waddle’s comments, but he was not saying anything many of us have not at least thought over the past couple of years. Walcott divides fan opinion at the Emirates – many are willing to be patient with him, but there are plenty of others who already consider him a busted flush. And his performances for England since Zagreb have also been patchy, with his current lack of form and confidence all too evident in the recent friendlies against Mexico and Japan.

Even so, it was pretty much a given that Walcott would be on the plane to South Africa, with many expecting him to beat Aaron Lennon to be the starter on the right.

Not for me. True, Lennon has not yet regained the blistering form he had in the first half of the season, but his all-important end product is certainly superior to Walcott’s, and he thoroughly deserves to be first choice. And while I was surprised that Fabio Capello selected Shaun Wright-Phillips – who has been in and out of the Man City side all year – over Theo, I can also understand his reasoning.

Facing up to tomorrow

The big question for Walcott is now: where does he go from here?

Youth is no longer an excuse for him. He is 21, older than Wayne Rooney was when leading the line at both Euro 2004 and in Germany in 2006. And Cesc Fabregas was made captain of Arsenal at the same age.

For so long, Walcott was a symbol of England’s future, the hat-trick hero of Zagreb who would help spearhead the England attack for years to come with his pace and scoring ability. But now, with his exclusion from the South Africa 23, his career trajectory needs to be re-evaluated.

It may well be that this is the push he needs to focus on upping his game and getting back into the England squad for the Euro qualifiers which start in the autumn. But it may also be a setback from which he will never recover, quietly fading away to become one of those many rising stars who never quite made it.

Sir Geoff Hurst, a man who knows a thing or two about such things, thinks similarly. He believes Arsène Wenger has a vital role to play in picking Walcott back up again.

It doesn’t surprise me that he wasn’t included. The reason he hasn’t been included is because of his lack of consistency of performance. He has certainly not replicated the form he first showed when he was included in the England squad, mainly thanks to his injuries. Nevertheless, if he has a good season and he can replicate the form he started with last year then he can get back in the team. He is quite capable of that. Arsène Wenger will be very important to Theo’s recovery. He is a great manager and a magnificent mentor to the young players at that club.

Without resorting to Rudyard Kipling and the words of the nation’s favourite poem, how Theo Walcott reacts to being dropped from the World Cup squad may prove to be either his making or breaking. He needs to focus on his future and start delivering on that as soon as the Premier League resumes in August. Otherwise he may find that tomorrow never comes, and that he has become yesterday’s man, superseded by the next big thing.

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About Tim
Father of three. Bit of a geek. That's all, folks.

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