A glance back through my notebooks from England's 2010 World Cup qualifying campaign yesterday yielded a few words from Fabio Capello that, in the light of his latest bombshell, proved telling. They date back to the night in Croatia in September 2008 when Theo Walcott's hat-trick had got the Capello bandwagon rolling.
Afterwards, at the Maksimir Stadium a few of us crowded around Capello to ask him about the night his then-19-year-old striker had come of age and whether it was going to be a problem keeping Walcott's feet on the ground. "No, I just say to the players that it is their second [competitive] game under me," Capello said. "It is a long way until we arrive in South Africa. We have to play every game like this evening."
Say what you like about Capello, and he has just been through the most erratic three weeks of his England regime, but he never made any promises he could not keep. He gave Walcott every chance to build on that performance in Croatia when at last he looked like the player whom Sven Goran Eriksson, more than two years earlier, had hoped he would be.
Against Croatia that night, it seemed that Walcott would be one of the cornerstones of this World Cup team. His proud father Don stopped by in the bar of the Sheraton hotel in Zagreb that night to toast his son's success. By the end of the season, he had a new Arsenal contract. And in the following 19 months Capello unfailingly picked him when he was fit and available; until, that is, yesterday lunchtime when he dropped the winger from his World Cup squad.
By all accounts, Walcott had a torrid time in training during England's pre-World Cup stay in Austria. His old fault of over-running the ball plagued him again even when he was not under pressure. He was one of just four players who started both matches against Mexico and Japan and, a few early runs in the first game aside, he looked completely off the pace.
When the England manager said after the victory over Japan on Sunday that nothing he had seen that afternoon at the UPC Arena in Graz had changed his mind he was not kidding. No-one had made the assumption that an aimless performance from Walcott, in which he consistently ran into trouble and lost the ball, had confirmed to the England manager that his hero of Zagreb was no longer up to it.
It is often forgotten that Walcott is still extremely young – in fact he was only 21 in March, and he does not always get the credit for what he has achieved thus far in his career. The most trenchant criticism of him has come from Chris Waddle who, when commentating on the Egypt game, accused Walcott of failing to understand the game. Few players that young could hope to understand it as well as Waddle once did but the criticism has stuck.
Perhaps that was what Capello thought as Walcott ran into countless dead-ends against Japan. Walcott is, after all, 20 months younger than Adam Johnson whom Capello considers one for the future. There is no reason why Walcott cannot finally make a World Cup appearance after his 2006 false start, although yesterday is likely to have proved a chastening experience.
It was, according to the Capello camp, not an easy decision to pick one from Walcott, Aaron Lennon and Shaun Wright-Phillips to leave behind. Nevertheless, given Walcott's earlier pre-eminence among those three it is hard not to think that the Arsenal man played himself out of the squad rather than Wright-Phillips in particular playing himself in. Either way, it is a spectacular fall from grace.
Walcott has lost his place to two right wingers who have never really hit the heights for Capello. Injury meant Lennon did not even play in a Capello England team until the Italian was almost two years into the job and Wright-Phillips has only started five games under him. It makes you wonder whether Walcott's problem has been his injuries or something more deep-seated.
The great shame for Walcott was that his biggest injury of the last two years was sustained while he was on England duty in a training session in Berlin in November 2008. There was an ambulance taken to the side of the pitch that night in the Olympic Stadium when he dislocated his shoulder and did not play again for Arsenal until March.
Soon after he came back, he hurt his knee and missed the next two World Cup qualifiers, only coming back for the end-of-season games against Kazakhstan and Andorra. But as usual he went straight into the team for both games. Before yesterday, if you had to name Capello's favourites, then Walcott would have figured highly among them.
The kindest thing to say about Walcott's misfortune is that he has had terrible luck with injuries. Starting with the friendly against the Netherlands in August, Walcott missed six England games through injury, only coming back for the Egypt match in March. Then, as against Mexico and Japan last month, he was fast-tracked straight back into the team by Capello.
Walcott had won his place back in a faltering Arsenal team for the last four games of their Premier League season. His best moment had come against Barcelona in the Champions League at the Emirates when he scored one goal and helped inspire Arsenal to fight back from two down. Had the season finished then he would surely have gone to the World Cup but, as Capello once said, it has been a long road to South Africa and not all have stayed the pace.Reuse content