His omission from England's World Cup finals squad was the pre-tournament surprise of the summer but yesterday Theo Walcott said that he understood why manager Fabio Capello had made the decision to leave him out and that his form at the end of last season had not been good enough.
In his most wide-ranging interview since he was left behind by Capello in May – and therefore spared his share of the blame for England's dismal performance in South Africa – Walcott also said that he missed Alan Hansen's hard-hitting criticism of him on Match of the Day 11 days ago. The Arsenal man, who had scored a hat-trick against Blackpool earlier that day, said that he was making a cup of tea when Hansen's analysis was broadcast.
With injuries abounding and disenchantment with the England team, there are few good-news stories in the Capello camp for the Football Association officials to pick out ahead of Friday's opening Euro 2012 qualifier against Bulgaria at Wembley. Walcott, untainted by the failings of June, and with four goals already this season is one of the few.
It was with characteristic grace, and the polished media savvy of a 21-year-old who has grown up in the public eye for the last five years, that Walcott dealt with the awkwardness of being rejected by the same manager who will probably pick him in the first XI come Friday. Asked whether Capello was wrong to leave him behind, Walcott was philosophical.
"Well, the form wasn't there [at the end of last season]," he said. "I was trying hopefully to be there [at the World Cup] and had a feeling I could be there, but I couldn't point fingers at Mr Capello or anyone like that. I just had to look at myself because it's one of those things I don't want to happen again. I want to prove people wrong on the pitch and hopefully it won't happen again.
"I didn't have the best season last season. Obviously having so many injuries stuttered [sic] the whole season and I think now I'm a bit more mature. I'm looking after myself a bit better. I'm staying behind after training for extra practice. I'm talking to people when I can, I'm having a go at people when I can. As a player, I've grown. We'll never know what would have happened if I had gone [to South Africa]."
Walcott's cheerful approach to life must come in useful, especially in the aftermath of his hat-trick against Blackpool. On that night's Match of the Day he was accused by Hansen of consistently failing to make the right choice on the occasions when he did not respond instinctively. It was a variation on the Chris Waddle criticism that Walcott does not have a "football brain", a failing that Walcott's critics link to him taking up the game relatively late in his childhood.
In defence of Hansen it was clearly not a criticism that he made lightly and he will have known that it would not go down well in some quarters. The subsequent outcry against the former Liverpool defender was predictably intemperate – nowhere more so than Ian Wright's feverish accusation that Hansen was "basically saying the lad [Walcott] is thick".
Yesterday Walcott knew the Hansen question was coming and ducked it three times with the line "everyone is entitled to their own opinion" – which sounded suspiciously like it had been prepared beforehand. He did eventually say that he did not bother to watch the analysis between the goals. "I was sitting on my own watching Match of the Day, I watched the goals go in, and then went off to make myself a cup of tea.
"The people I listen to are the boss [Arsène Wenger], Mr Capello, the players and my family," he said. "They are the most important people in my career. As long as I can continue to listen to them, hopefully, it will be fine and I'll do the talking on the pitch."
The "too nice to be a footballer" criticism is another that has followed Walcott around, a pleasant young man from the village of Compton in Berkshire with a supportive family and a clean-cut image. His tendency to go down too easily when confronted with a physical opponent has contributed to this view and Walcott conceded that had been a weakness in the past.
As well as building up his strength over the summer, he said he was also doing extra sessions after training with fellow right-sider Bacary Sagna and new striker Marouane Chamakh. As for being too nice, he said those days were over.
"I think you can be nice off the pitch and [different on it]. Look at David Beckham. He's the perfect example. The nicest guy but someone who gets up from the tackles, puts in the deliveries. Does his job. This season I've been going to the gym a bit more. I don't want to slow myself down [by doing too many weights].
"It's one of those things. When I was 17 or 18, if I got kicked I probably would have stayed down. Now I get up. And that's when the full-back thinks 'I'm going to have a torrid day today'. That's what I've got to do. If I do get kicked, if I get hurt, I've just got to get up from it."
Come Friday against Bulgaria and next Tuesday against Switzerland, Capello will be relying on Walcott to kick-start the Euro 2012 campaign as he did the last World Cup qualification with that hat-trick in Zagreb almost two years ago. Those three goals against Croatia are still his only ones for England. "I've only had 12 caps and three goals," Walcott reminded us yesterday. "That's not too bad at 21."
'I do feel Scottish, I've been there a few times': Gilks answers Levein's call
Matt Gilks insists that Scotland was always his first-choice international team despite being born in Rochdale. The Blackpool goalkeeper was drafted into Craig Levein's squad for the first time for the Euro 2012 qualifiers against Lithuania and Liechtenstein. Gilks is eligible through his grandmother from Perth. "I do [feel Scottish] to be honest," he said. "Scotland was definitely my first choice. My grandmother was born in Scotland and she was a massive influence on me growing up so I have always leaned towards Scotland, rather than England. I've been to Scotland a few times."
John Toshack's squad have been hit by the withdrawal of four players for Friday's opening Euro 2012 qualifier in Montenegro. Defenders Danny Gabbidon and Darcy Blake and midfield pair Andrew Crofts and Brian Stock will miss the trip through injury. West Ham player Gabbidon has a calf injury. Blake (foot), Crofts (groin) and Stock (back) have been withdrawn by Cardiff, Norwich and Doncaster respectively.
Republic of Ireland
Giovanni Trapattoni has been dealt another blow ahead of Friday's qualifier in Armenia following the withdrawal of defender Paul McShane. The 24-year-old Hull player has been ruled out with a hamstring injury and has returned to his club. However, McShane could be back for next Tuesday's home match with Andorra. He joins Damien Duff, Keith Andrews and Keith Treacy, all in the original squad but now on the sidelines, while Ipswich defender Darren O'Dea yesterday underwent a scan on a knee injury.Reuse content