The silence that greeted Eriksson

Even his coaching staff were dumbfounded by the Walcott decision - Sven a gambler?
Click to follow
The Independent Football

McClaren, Sven Goran Eriksson has revealed, reacted rather differently to the departing head coach's suggestion that a (just) 17-year-old with 13 starts in the Championship behind him (21 appearances in all) might have a significant part to play in the World Cup finals. The pair of them shared a phone conference last Friday afternoon with Tord Grip, Sammy Lee and the goalkeeping coach, Ray Clem-ence. What was the reaction, Sven, when you said you were picking Walcott? "It was silence at the other end. Sammy and Steve, they couldn't say anything, because they never saw him play."

As, of course, Eriksson has not, except on videos and in training. He has been heavily influenced by his friend Arsène Wenger: "Arsène thinks this is a very, very special player. I'd never have done it if someone close to him or in Arsenal said he's not ready for it. But we checked out very well if he can cope with this situation. Everything we heard about him as a person from England coaches at youth level, Southampton, Arsenal, everybody's said he can cope, he won't be in awe, he's a very, very steady boy. I only talked to him once and got a good impression."

Having been proved right about the public's response, Eriksson was asked about how this summer's rivals might react: "They will find out about him. Probably they've heard he is quick and when they see it, they won't believe it." Having talked the young man up sufficiently, the head coach will now put the brakes on. "Let's wait until we practise and see how he is with the other, senior players."

Arsenal, a little oddly, do not need Walcott in their Champions' League squad this week, so he will meet those England team-mates at the Vale de Lobo training camp instead, subjecting Rio Ferdinand and John Terry to the sort of pace and trickery that Ashley Cole and Sol Campbell already know all about. Ferdinand will doubtless treat him gently, remembering how he felt when introduced to the England squad for special training before Euro '96 as an 18-year-old, with one substitute's appearance for West Ham to his name. The difference, of course, was that there was no suggestion of Ferdinand actually taking part in the tournament.

For Walcott, there has to be every chance of that. Forwards, as Eriksson himself noted, tend to be used more than defenders. At Euro 2004, all four strikers had been used by the end of the first game; two years earlier, all five forwards were required at some stage.

This time, he has packed the squad with midfielders, nominating Joe Cole as a potential support striker (a role he has played much less often than wide midfielder) while suggesting that "if the match was this afternoon, or tomorrow" Michael Owen (if fit) would start alongside Peter Crouch, with options for substitutions coming from the other surprise choices, Aaron Lennon and Stewart Downing.

"The last two months made me change my mind," Eriksson said of the latter pair. "Downing and Lennon haven't been at the level they are today, so they made me change my mind when I went to see them. I liked Downing very much last time, in the semi-final [of the Uefa Cup] and that was at international level. They may start or might never start but to have the option of pace, especially second half at nil-nil or maybe you're losing, I think they're perfect players to have on the bench."

Owen now has three matches to demonstrate his fitness, in the B international against Belarus at Reading on Thursday week, then the friendlies at Old Trafford the following week against Hungary and Jamaica. Only if he breaks down again will a rethink be required, with Jermain Defoe available to be called in as replacement until 24 hours before the opening game on 10 June. Before then, bulletins on Wayne Rooney's metatarsal will push young Walcott downpage, especially if there should be any conflict, real or imagined, between the medical staffs of England and Manchester United.

"It's very important to know that he's paid by Manchester United and they must look after their interest for the future," Eriksson said. "On the other hand, if he's fit, he's fit and nobody can tell him not to play in the World Cup because he's desperate to. Our doctors are in regular contact with the medical staff at United. I'm not worried about that. He will join us when he's football fit, kicking a ball, when he can train. I don't have any deadline. 8 July?"

That, of course, is the day before the final, emphasising the Swede's continuing determination to give his most significant player the maximum chance of appearing in even one game. The catch is that without him they have a greatly reduced chance of progressing that far - what you might call Catch-23. Only if there are longer-term implications will Eriksson back down: "You have to be sure from doctors and physios that it will not be dangerous for the future. You don't play football players who risk breaking down and staying away for a month after that."

He remains unrepentant about having taken David Beckham to the last World Cup ("He played but had some pain so you can discuss if that was the right or wrong decision") and would have done the same with Steven Gerrard if Liverpool's manager at the time, Gérard Houllier, had not talked him out of doing so. So Rooney will be given every chance, as long as United remain happy with his progress.

Unexpectedly, the one first-choice player for whom there is now no direct replacement is none other than the aforementioned Crouch. Without him, the ditching of Darren Bent (an excellent header) means England would be fielding probably the smallest attack in World Cup history. Get those crosses in, Becks, but keep them below knee-height.

So, has Eriksson, in producing the most controversial resignation honours list since Harold Wilson 30 years ago, unwittingly revealed a hitherto well concealed passion for gambling? "I'm not a gambler, I don't like gambling in a casino," he insisted. "During military service we played poker. I was good at it, I won some money."

That sounds much more like Eriksson's game. Whatever happens over the next two months, old poker-face has dumbfounded us all.

Anatomy of the assets that made England take a chance on Theo

Upper body

At 5ft 7in, Theo Walcott is shorter than the average forward, but broad chested. He uses weights to build upper-body strength and his physical competitiveness, including in the air, belies his stature.


As well as good awareness and superb timing, Walcott's level-headedness, especially his calmness under pressure - derived from what Huw Jennings, the former head of Southampton's Academy, calls Walcott's "circle of serenity" (i.e. stable background and backing) bodes well for Germany.


Walcott's sprinter's pace, from a standing start and over distance (11.5sec for 100m), is his most outstanding single asset, driven by powerful thighs. A lower centre of gravity also contributes to his balance on the run. Quicker, they say, than Thierry Henry.

Right foot

Walcott's close control is superb, whether he is trying to escape the attentions of one or more markers or dribbling at speed. Deft footwork and a good first touch make predator's goals part of the repertoire.

Left foot

A belting "weak foot". The boy himself has claimed that his left foot is a weakness, but his first-touch lobbed wondergoal - on the run - against Luton in December was with his left foot, a symbol of his desire for self-improvement.