Theo Walcott all but booked England's place in the Under-21 European Championship play-offs when he made a popular goal-scoring return to Southampton last night. The Arsenal youngster delighted a near sell-out St Mary's crowd when he curled in a beauty to wrap up a comprehensive victory for Stuart Pearce's side who only need a point now in their final game against Portugal to go through to the knockout stages.
Walcott, who has struggled to make his mark in the Premier League, displayed the cool finishing of an experienced striker when he beat the Republic of Ireland goalkeeper Darren Randolph on 78 minutes with a curling shot that any player would have been proud of.
It was a notable strike with which to mark his first return to the club that was forced to sell him to Arsenal two seasons ago to alleviate their own financial worries.
Walcott chose his words carefully afterwards when he said: "That goal was for the Southampton fans who were brilliant to me when I was here, but the most important thing was that we got the three points tonight and a clean sheet. I don't pay any attention to the criticism about me. The only people I listen to are my family and close friends – I don't listen to what other people say. I just get on with my football and try to play in every game."
Pearce praised Walcott for his performance as a lone striker and stated that he may have to be a little bit more patient to win his place in the Arsenal team. He said: "Theo will be judged by me and by his club by how he does over 90 minutes but he played in a difficult position up-front alone and scored a good goal, but let's not forget that he is the second youngest player in this age group. That price tag, and the World Cup, catapulted him into the limelight when he was a very young lad still learning his trade. He can learn the game under an excellent manager in Wenger at a fantastic football club."
Pearce insisted that new England national coach Fabio Capello had only asked his players to show the same "winning mentality" that he had demanded of the senior team when they line up against Switzerland in tonight's friendly at Wembley.
England struggled at times in the first half even though for much of it they dominated a Republic of Ireland side that worked the ball well but had no cutting edge.
James Milner is always prepared to shoot on sight and he forced a good save out of Randolph, and after Ireland then survived two penalty scares they were relieved to be still in the game at half-time. Andrew Keogh of Wolves should have given them the lead five minutes after the break, but delayed his shot long enough to enable Joe Hart to save – and that lucky escape seemed to spur England on.
Walcott had a volley cleared off the line by Darren O'Dea before England scored twice in eight minutes to finally make their superiority count.
Milner struck on the hour with a low drive that was diverted in off Stephen O'Halloran's leg but Pearce insisted with a wink: "I didn't see a deflection, it went straight in."
There was no doubting Milner's second goal when his 20-yard shot went in off a post before Walcott capped a night to remember back on the south coast.
England Under-21 (4-2-3-1): Hart (Manchester City); Mattock (Leicester), Wheater (Middlesbrough), Taylor (Newcastle), Gardner (Aston Villa); Muamba (Birmingham), Huddlestone (Tottenham); Milner (Newcastle), Noble (West Ham), Lennon (Tottenham); Walcott (Arsenal). Substitutes used: Jerome (Birmingham) for Huddlestone, 79; Johnson (Middlesbrough) for Walcott 86; Surman (Southampton) for Noble, 86.
Republic of Ireland Under-21 (4-5-1): Randolph (Charlton); Nolan (Blackburn), O'Cearuill (Barnet), O'Dea (Celtic), O'Halloran (Southampton); Stokes (Sunderland), Quinn (Sheffield United), O'Toole (Watford), Garvan (Ipswich), Clarke (Ipswich); A Keogh (Wolves). Substitutes used: Rooney (Chesterfield) for Clarke, 65; Morris (Scunthorpe) for Quinn, 84; O'Brien (Celtic) for Stokes, 87.
Referee: J Hyytia (Finland).