After he scored his third goal against Croatia on Wednesday night, up in the stands of the Maksimir Stadium the England fans began to sing the name of Theo Walcott and, according to those who were with him, the player's father Don, who was sitting up there too, started to well up. It is not always easy being the parent of a professional footballer, however good it may sound, and it is doubly hard when your boy happens to be the footballer who lives his career in reverse.
Picked for a World Cup before he was even a Premier League footballer. Dropped by England before he had even played a competitive game. The strangest thing about Walcott's hat-trick heroics this week is that anyone who had watched him play for Arsenal this season would have wondered why he was even in the England squad. Injuries had given him his chance to shine on the wing for the Gunners but he never really took it, with the exception of a goal against FC Twente. What is more, Fabio Capello, the England manager, had picked him as a striker and insisted that was where he had been playing for Arsenal, to the extent that it seemed impolite to argue otherwise.
That was Walcott until Wednesday night, a player you believed was on the way to being a star just as long as you took Arsène Wenger's word for it. Pre-Croatia, Walcott might not yet have demonstrated why the Arsenal manager's faith was so unshakeable but at least he was such a nice kid. If you watched closely as the Arsenal players came off after their warm-up before the Champions League qualifier first leg against Twente last month you would have seen Walcott break away and walk over to shake the hand of Steve McClaren, the man who never picked Walcott once for an England squad. The Twente coach looked a bit awkward but there was nothing false about Walcott.
Zagreb changed everything. Walcott has made his breakthrough and not before time. He may only be 19 but increasingly, the best young players in the world – Lionel Messi, Fernando Torres, Cristiano Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney – demonstrate that talent in their teens. Never more than now is football a young man's game where the best will flourish before they hit 20. With Walcott, the nagging feeling is that he is not at his most effective as a winger, where he played against Croatia, but that it is as a striker that he looks most dangerous. Wenger has always regarded Walcott as a natural finisher but never had the space to accommodate him there in an Arsenal team so rich in goalscorers.
That is the problem for Walcott: when, if ever, will he get his chance to play in his best position for Arsenal? Against Croatia he was deployed on the right but was decisive when he drifted inside, twice picking up loose balls from an over-stretched defence for his first two goals, then scoring with a classic breakaway for the third. As for getting past Daniel Pranjic, the prototype for the modern left-back, he struggled. Put him up against Josep Simunic, the ponderous Croatia centre-back and he caused chaos. At Arsenal, Walcott is a goalscorer in a team that wants to play him as a winger. "He can play down the middle but I don't think he's ready for that," Wenger said yesterday. "The potential is there but don't make him [the next] Thierry Henry."
The next Thierry Henry is exactly what England want Walcott to be, and the sooner the better. At Arsenal he will have to wait his turn. His development has been compared with that of Michael Owen, but there was a certainty about Owen's future when he broke on to the international scene in 1998 that told you this was a boy who was assured of a great future with England. Walcott, for all his efforts on Wednesday, is not so much of a certainty as Owen. He is not even a certainty to make it at Arsenal. As has become the pattern in Walcott's career he blasts into the national consciousness in one blaze – signed by Arsenal two years ago, picked for England – and then struggles to live up to the expectation.
Each of his team-mates who came to give testimony to Walcott's achievement in Zagreb after the game said the same thing: that he has great pace but that he will be judged in the long term. "I've seen many a time players get made out to be the saviour of English football," Rooney said, hinting at his own chequered past. At the World Cup in 2006, Walcott acquired a reputation among the players for going down very easily in training as well as trying – and failing – to use his pace to blast past more experienced defenders. He was, of course, only 17 and now it is his pace which has become his greatest asset
"The speed he has is incredible and I have never played with a faster player," David Beckham said of the new No 7 for England. "If he plays like that and scores and creates chances like he did he will frighten defenders. From what I have seen in training and against Andorra it is frightening how quick he is and he will put the wind up any defence."
Rooney talked about the goal Walcott scored in a training session last Thursday which must have settled any concerns that Capello had about picking the player for Saturday's game against Andorra. "It's different to what we've had for the past four years because he's got frightening pace which keeps defenders on the back foot," Rooney said. "I've not seen anyone as quick as him. He scored a goal in training last week and showed everyone how quick he was. When he gets going he's just unbelievable."
John Terry said that Walcott had "come out of his shell a bit. The way he took his goals showed that he can play at this level. He was superb and you can see this week his confidence has just got better and better."
Read between the lines and it seems that it was not just the rest of the world who were surprised at Walcott, it was his team-mates too. After setting England's World Cup qualification campaign ablaze, now for the really hard part: getting into Arsenal's team.
Striker comes up trumps in his own version of stud poker
Tiger Woods won the US Open on one leg earlier this year and, although Theo Walcott's performance in Croatia was not on the same heroic scale as that of the world's greatest golfer, he did achieve his hat-trick in Zagreb on one boot – or one fully functioning boot anyway.
The winger's right boot lost a stud in the latter part of the first half but, as he had already scored, when the chance to slip into a new pair came at half-time Walcott decided – for superstitious reasons – to stick with the boot that had delivered his first international goal.
"I actually played with one less stud in my right boot in the second half as it basically fell to pieces and I didn't want to change. There was no way I was going to change them," the Arsenal youngster said. "That's why I finished the third goal with my left." In fact, due to the angle, it would have been some finish with his right, but given Walcott's wonders on Wednesday, you wouldn't have put it past him.Reuse content