Walcott finally lives up to great expectations

Six years after his surprise call-up, the Arsenal winger has come of age

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The Independent Football

Ever since Sven Goran Eriksson took an ill-advised World Cup gamble on a 17-year-old in 2006, Theo Walcott has had to live with expectation. Now, six years on, nothing has changed.

England's decision to select Walcott as a glorified ball-boy in Germany had a profound effect on a fledgling career. Still one year under the legal limit, he was asked to drink in the intoxicating atmosphere of a major tournament less than four months after moving to the Emirates Stadium from Southampton.

Although he took no part in the run to the quarter-finals, the hype around Walcott consequently grew beyond reasonable parameters in a manner that has threatened to consume him.

Walcott's playing style is so rapid that excitement and disappointment stalk him. One moment a burst of pace has developed an attacking situation few other players could have created, the next it has gone with a poor decision or a misplaced pass.

The turbulence encountered at Arsenal this season knocked him off course as a section of the team's supporters became increasingly vocal in their criticism of a player the former England winger Chris Waddle once described as "without a football brain".

Walcott is a genial character who, despite public denials, undoubtedly had his faith shaken, as he takes criticism very much to heart. It is apparent most in his reluctance to take on defenders when confidence is low, while injuries have at times weakened his ability to answer back.

Frustration seems to follow Walcott. The Gunners' long search for a trophy will enter its eighth season in August, while his 2006 experience was compounded by England's absence from Euro 2008 and Fabio Capello's decision to omit him from the squad for South Africa two years ago.

Although he has shown flashes of ability for England, most notably a stunning hat-trick in a 4-1 victory over Croatia four years ago in a World Cup qualifier, his game-changing contribution in Friday's 3-2 victory over Sweden has been a long time coming.

Consternation would have increased when his club team-mate Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, five years his junior, tasted tournament football for the first time before he did, and clearly the 23-year-old believes he has made his point.

"If you do what I did coming off the bench hopefully you've shown the boss what you can do," said Walcott. "He [Roy Hodgson] said during the week, 'This week's going to be crucial for you, coming off the bench to make the difference'. That's what I did and we got the three points.

"It doesn't matter who scored, who played well. Three points in a tournament gets you far.

"I would say the whole season was pretty consistent for me. And I stayed fit, which is important for me, for the first season. Goals, quite a few assists, as well. I had such a difficult time at Arsenal at times, and the hamstring problem set me back with England. But I'm ready, I'm training well, I've been looking after myself.

"I had a good season for Arsenal and I was disappointed not to be playing the first game [against France], but you're going to be disappointed in this game."

After he was thrust into the public consciousness at such a young age, supporters are predisposed to assuming he is somehow failing to become the world-beater many assumed he would inevitably become.

But then it takes time for most players. While there are undoubtedly areas of his game that still require improvement, Walcott has worked hard at increasing his productivity. He has scored or assisted 16 goals in each of his past two Premier League seasons, compared with 19 in total for the previous four.

Walcott's goal and assist against Sweden gives Hodgson a welcome selection dilemma for England's final Group G match against Ukraine. James Milner provides defensive discipline starkly contrasted to Walcott's blistering pace, and the England manager refused to commit himself either way.

"They are different types of players and what James can give you is different to what Theo can give you," he said. "Preparing the two games against France and Sweden it was my decision James should start, but I have always been aware that with Theo we have a very good player to bring on. I am not prepared to go into details about the qualities of the players. Sometimes I have to make decisions."

Walcott must wait to find out if he has done enough to start, although he could barely do any more. There have been a few false dawns in his career to date but at least the wait to announce himself at an international tournament is finally over.