Walcott's wiles raise Saints' hopes for future


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The Independent Football

It is true that Redknapp will be judged this season on how his first team cope with life outside the Premiership, but the short-sightedness of his comments was underlined by the identity of the evening's most eye-catching performers. Although Glenn Hoddle's Wolves had confirmed their promotion credentials by dominating much of the game, both players were Saints. One, Dennis Wise, is winding down a controversial but successful career. The other, Theo Walcott, is just embarking on what promises to be a glittering one. What they have in common is that both were spotted, as boys, by Southampton's scouting network.

Wise is no angel now and as a teenager he was a real tearaway. Southampton found him difficult to handle and released him at 18. Wise went on to win 21 England caps and a handful of major trophies. On Saturday, two decades late, he finally made his Southampton debut, coming on after 50 minutes to a rapturous reception. Even though he was carrying a hamstring strain his arrival changed the game.

Only Antti Niemi, who had saved from Mark Kennedy and Joleon Lescott, and the bar, which had been struck by Carl Cort, had denied Wolves a deserved lead. Wise gave Southampton presence. His leadership composed them and his passing knitted their game together. He also, inevitably, raised the temperature, being booked within four minutes. It was the first of eight second-half yellow cards, a plethora which eventually resulted in Claus Lundekvam's dismissal.

By then Redknapp had introduced another debutant substitute. If Wise is the one who got away Southampton are determined that Walcott will stay to lead them to better things. The 16-year-old has already caught the eye of Chelsea and Real Madrid and we soon saw why. In just 17 minutes on the pitch Walcott demonstrated dazzling footwork and an exuberant confidence. With his first touch he danced past two defenders then shot; with his second he forced the experienced Jackie McNamara to bring him down on the edge of the box at the cost of a yellow card. He is a rare talent who Redknapp only just stopped short of publicly comparing to Thierry Henry. If ever there was a reason to make sure the right structure is in place to bring young players through, rather than lose them as Saints lost Wise, Walcott is it.

Kennedy is aware of the pitfalls. His long pass to Kenny Miller on the hour, which drew Niemi's best save of the afternoon, reminded one of why Liverpool paid £1.5m for him when he was still a teenager in 1995. Kennedy got distracted and never fulfilled his potential and he said knowingly of Walcott: "As long as he keeps his head on his shoulders, has got good people around him, and doesn't lose focus on his football, he has got a very big future."

Woodward might be the man, though Redknapp brought Joe Cole through without problems. The boy himself is still at that wide-eyed stage, gushing: " I've dreamt of this moment, but I never expected the stadium to be so full or have the fans chant my name. I only signed on as a first-year scholar a month ago."

Redknapp and Hoddle once viewed football with a similar naïvety. Now they are each under pressure to deliver promotion and they were both happy to avoid defeat at the start of what promises to be a very competitive race, a point underlined by none of the relegated trio winning. "We know it's a tough division to get out of," Hoddle said. "The teams that are coming down are going to have to find that out."

Southampton (4-3-1-2): Niemi; Hajto, Lundekvam, Powell, Higginbotham; Prutton, Oakley, Quashie; Belmadi (Wise, 50); Fuller (Delap, 90), Jones (Walcott, 73). Substitutes not used: Smith (gk), Cranie.

Wolverhampton Wanderers (4-1-2-3): Oakes; McNamara, Edwards, Lescott, Naylor; Ince; Kennedy, Ricketts; Seol (Olofinjana, 78), Miller (Clarke, 85), Cort. Substitutes not used: Ikeme (gk), Craddock, Cameron.

Referee: T Kettle (Berkshire).

Booked: Southampton Lundekvam, Powell, Wise, Hajto; Wolverhampton Seol, Kennedy, Miller, McNamara.

Sent off: Lundekvam (79).

Man of the match: Wise.

Attendance: 24,061.