Football: No time to show you are fallible: Des Walker was the man England could rely upon above all others. But as two vital World Cup games approach, is that still the case? Richard Williams reports

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HE IS probably the best defender English football has produced since Bobby Moore. We saw it proved a hundred times. A red-shirted shadow moving at top speed, a brush of the shoulder and a sudden deft flick of the boot. The perfect tackle: swift, silent and conclusive. It was Des Walker's speciality.

Now, though, something seems to have gone badly wrong. A month ago at Wembley, 60,000 England fans went silent, unable to believe their eyes. Of all the things they might have feared, this was just about the least likely.

A little man in an orange shirt was running past Des Walker. Marc Over

mars, the tiny 19-year-old Dutchman, was scuttling towards the English goal. Walker, realising that he couldn't catch him, reached out and grabbed a handful of orange shirt. And held on. Eventually, as the winger crossed the white line into the penalty area, he fell over, dragged down by Walker's hand. Penalty. Astonishment all round.

With three minutes to go in this World Cup qualifying match, England were winning 2-1, playing their best football in years. Then, in a couple of seconds, in his 53rd international, Walker's rashness cost them victory, cost them a point, might perhaps turn out to have cost them a trip to the World Cup next year. The morning headlines told the story. 'Walker Folly Lets In Dutch.' 'England Undone By Walker's Blunder.' What had happened? What has become of Des Walker?

YOU'LL NE-VER beat Des Wal-ker. You'll ne-ver beat Des Wal-ker.

That's what they sang at the City Ground, with a matter-of-factness that mocked the efforts of the most renowned visiting forwards. To many of Nottingham Forest's fans, he was the finest player ever to pull on the Garibaldi shirt. They came to love his silent efficiency, the lack of wasted gesture, the erasure of emotion from his play.

In the 1990 World Cup, he was so outstanding that Gianni Agnelli was said to have bid up to pounds 8m to take him to Juventus. Walker's deal with Forest, though, exchanged another two years in Nottingham for the right to a bargain transfer fee of pounds 1.5m, giving him the chance to negotiate more lucrative personal terms with a new club.

So, at the end of last season, Walker moved to Sampdoria of Genoa - who, bankrolled by the petrol tycoon Paolo Mantovani, are among the most ambitious of Italian clubs. The decision to sign Walker was Mantovani's own, and the deal was concluded shortly before the arrival of a new manager, Sven-Goran Eriksson, a 45-year-old Swede, whose record included a Uefa Cup with Gothenburg, three Portuguese championships with Benfica, and spells with Roma and Fiorentina.

Nobody doubted that Des Walker would shine in the Italian league, so Channel 4's live transmission of his debut was eagerly awaited. And that provided the first shock. After 20 minutes of the match in the beautiful Luigi Di Ferraris stadium, Sampdoria were 2-1 down to their visitors, Lazio. Beppe Signori had scored the first two of his 25 league goals to date this season. And Des Walker, in the middle of Sampdo

ria's defence, was looking as though he wondered what he'd got himself into.

In October, at Torino, Walker's weak headed clearance was pounced on by Carlos Aguilera, who scored in a tight 2-2 draw. Three weeks later, in Florence, Walker was looking at sea again as Francesco Baiano and Gabriel Batistuta got a couple each to give Fiorentina victory by 4-0. 'A disaster,' Eriksson said afterwards. By the end of January, Walker had been moved out of central defence to left back, allowing Marco Lanna, 24, to switch inside and partner the gnarled 33-year-old international stopper, Pietro Vierchowod.

Walker's personal plight was thrown into sharp focus at the end of February, when Sampdoria were beaten 4-0 in the San Siro by Milan, then in their pomp. First Walker allowed Jean-Pierre Papin to get his head to a bouncing ball on the edge of the area, the Frenchman swooping to take it off Walker's boot and send it skimming inside the far post. Then in the final minute Papin ran Walker first left and then right, steadying himself while the defender floundered and cracking in a right-foot shot. The San Siro hugged itself. You could see Walker wishing the grass would swallow him.

There was worse to come. At home to a rampant Internazionale last month, Sampdoria were 2-0 down in the first half when the trainer held up the board with the big 4 on it and Walker was pulled off. A week later he was dropped from the starting line-up, relegated to the substitutes' bench. And there he has stayed. The best English defender of his generation, unable to get a game on a Sunday afternoon.

'IT'S HARD to be a defender in Italy,' says the cab driver on the way into Genoa, picking his nails and watching a girl in the wing-mirror. 'Walker's a good player. But he'll be back in England next season, eh?'

So the rumours say. He'll be at Manchester United come August. Or Liverpool. Or perhaps Marseille, whose president, Bernard Tapie, is showing an interest. Or Sheffield Wednesday, whose manager, Trevor Francis, was Sampdoria's first imported Englishman, and has maintained links with his old club. Or there was last week's story making Walker the catalyst of the row between Terry Venables, who wanted to buy him for Spurs, and Alan Sugar, who said they couldn't afford it.

On this particular weekday there's little sign of life at the Sampdoria practice ground in the wooded hills above Bogliasco, along the coast from Genoa. Walker's agent, Dennis Roach, has arranged for me to meet him at the end of the morning's training session. The fact that Walker agreed to the request

was a surprise: he doesn't normally talk to newspapers, although he's known to be an extrovert in the dressing room. And now it's high noon at Bogliasco. So where is he?

A coach comes to the gate and says that training doesn't start until three o'clock. He gets Walker on the phone at his home just outside Nervi, an up-market seafront enclave that was once home to Trevor Francis. But Walker claims he doesn't know anything about the interview. 'I don't want to be difficult,' he says, 'but I don't do interviews. My agent knows that. I don't read newspapers, so why should I talk to them? You can write what you like.'

On the pay-phone outside the changing rooms, I talk to the agent's assistant, John Barr, in London. He says he'll phone his boss, who's in France, and they'll sort it out with Walker. Perhaps he'll talk about England. He probably won't talk about Sampdoria. 'Des is a substitute at the moment,' Barr says, 'and that's nothing to do with the way he's playing.' There's a conspiratorial note in his voice. 'Things are very . . . political at Sampdoria, right?'

A couple of hours later, Des Walker is getting out of his black BMW 325i. He's a tall, elegant figure: Ralph Lauren sports shirt, new black jeans, brown deck shoes. I say hello, and ask if he's spoken to Roach. 'No,' he says. 'And it wouldn't make any difference if I had. I don't want to talk. Sorry. Ciao, Pino,' he says, breaking off to greet one of the coaches. 'Come stai?' And off he goes to change for the training session. A dozen spectators settle into the small grandstand above the training pitch.

When Walker reappears, he's wearing a pair of grey sweat-pants hacked off just above the knee - a style also favoured by the club's two pin-ups, the forwards Roberto Mancini and Renato Buso. Under Eriksson's eye, the 20 outfield players play two simultaneous five-a-side matches, without goals: a discipline intended to improve the first touch and the short, quick pass. Compared with the slickness of the Italians, Walker looks a bit slow and prosaic.

Next, with the addition of two goalkeepers, there's a match between the first team and the reserves: 45 minutes on a full pitch, followed by 20 minutes on a half-pitch. Walker is in the first-choice team, alongside Vierchowod in the middle of a flat back four. 'Lanna's injured,' says one of my grandstand neighbours, an architect who's taken the afternoon off to come and sit in the sun. 'Walker came on for him against Pescara last weekend. So maybe he'll be in the side on Sunday.'

When the session ends, Eriksson comes over to talk to a gaggle of reporters. I ask him about Des Walker. What's the problem?

He gives me a slightly rueful look. 'First of all,' he begins, 'Des is a great professional. He's had a difficult year, for a lot of reasons. Mainly because . . . maybe we bought . . . well, we have in the club too many central defenders. When the season started, I thought Mannini to the right, Lanna to the left, and Walker and Vierchowod central, it should be a very good solution. After a while I saw that Lanna couldn't play on the left, and there started all the problems. We tried Walker to the left - and I almost knew before we did it that this would be a bad solution. Especially when he attacks, because he's not used to that position. So that's life. It's hard for him, as it's hard for me, and also for the club. The fault is not Walker's, it's more mine. It's not that he's a bad football player. Absolutely not.'

But, I tell him, we've seen Walker apparently making more mistakes in eight months in Italy than he made in eight years in England. 'Well, you know, Italian soccer is difficult for everybody, especially the first year. It was difficult for Platini, it was difficult for Maradona, it was difficult for almost everybody. Because you meet every Sunday many, many good centre-forwards, for example. Even if you go to Ancona, or Atalanta, or Brescia, you find big international centre-forwards to meet. So you can never have a calm Sunday, when you might think, today it's easy. That's Italy. Of course, soccer in Italy is different from soccer in England. And to adapt to the new way of playing maybe takes some time.'

Is the problem that he doesn't pass the ball accurately enough for the Italian game? 'No. I don't think so. I mean, Walker did here what I expected him to do. He's not a disappointment for me. Absolutely not. I'm happy with him. But I had to make a choice when I had this problem, and unfortunately for him he has been on the bench for some games now. He's not happy about that, of course.'

So what quality has Lanna got that Walker hasn't? 'He is younger, he is maybe a little bit better passer, and he is more like a libero. If you play Vierchowod together with Lanna, it's a very good couple because one is hard, the other is more . . . what do you say? . . . elastic.'

What about next year? Is Walker moving on? 'Well, Des has a contract with us for two more years, I think. So we'll see what's happening.' Everybody says he's coming back to England. 'Yes, I know everybody's speaking about that, but I agreed with Walker and the club that we do this season and afterwards we'll see what's happening.'

A few minutes later, Walker is heading towards the BMW with Vladimir Jugovic, the Serbian midfielder. 'See you around,' he says as he signs autographs at the gate before popping a Bob Marley cassette into the player and heading off west, into the warm late-afternoon sun, towards home.

IT ISN'T easy being an English footballer in Italy. Some are remembered with honour and affection, like Ray Wilkins and Liam Brady. Others evoke a regretful shake of the head that bespeaks an expensive mistake, a career interrupted: Joe Baker, Luther Blissett, Ian Rush. According to Eriksson, Des Walker has settled into the Italian life: 'He speaks Italian, he's accepted by everybody in the club, I think he's happy.' But it's too early to say what Italy will turn out to have meant to him.

Maybe the error that led to the Wembley penalty was the result of a stain of uncertainty spreading in the mind of a man used to making the right decisions by instinct, but whose confidence has been undermined by an uncertainty bred when Beppe Signori scored those two goals in the first 20 minutes on a beautiful afternoon by the Ligurian Sea last September.

Last Sunday, Lanna was fit to face Foggia and Walker was still on the bench, where he stayed for the whole 90 minutes while Sampdoria lost by the only goal. Next Saturday, Walker will be in Katowice, pulling on his England jersey for the next World Cup match, against Poland. He won't have played a full competitive game in a month. Four days after Katowice there's a second World Cup match, against Norway in Oslo. Either or both of these will decide the immediate future of English football. Which Des Walker will we see there? And if it all goes wrong, whose fault will that be?

(Photograph omitted)