He called it the "gamble" but as bets go even the most fearless punters among the England team would not have backed Sven Goran Eriksson to pick Theo Walcott in his World Cup finals squad. He was 17 years and 53 days old yesterday and not only has Walcott never played for Arsenal in the Premiership, but Eriksson has never seen him play a competitive match.
There were gasps of surprise as Walcott's name was beamed on to the big screen at the Café Royal on Regent Street, at the announcement of the England squad yesterday - and he was joined by another uncapped player, Aaron Lennon of Tottenham Hotspur.
"I'm not crazy," protested Eriksson on the day he shook off his image as one of international football's conservatives and pinned his reputation on the nation's emergent generation.
Walcott's inclusion was not a complete surprise. It became clear on Sunday night, as reported in The Independent yesterday, that he would play some part in the squad, although he was expected to be one of the five reserves selected by Eriksson. Instead, the Swede decided to put his faith in the teenager on the basis of the recommendation of the Arsenal manager, Arsène Wenger, a couple of training sessions and a few video recordings of Walcott's matches.
It was a bold, remarkable decision that may be an enormous risk but certainly had the effect of reinvigorating an England World Cup campaign in danger of being undone by the injuries to Wayne Rooney and, to a lesser extent, Michael Owen. Eriksson also gave a place to Middlesbrough's winger, Stewart Downing, but relegated Jermain Defoe to the reserves and excluded Shaun Wright-Phillips, Darren Bent and the injured Ledley King.
The day belonged to a new, risk-taking Eriksson who defied prediction, shrugging off the notion that he is cautious by nature. Consider that he gave Rooney his debut against Australia in February 2003 at the age of 17 years and 111 days, a record Walcott will break when he gets his first full cap - most probably in the friendly against Hungary on 30 May. Eriksson said he had finalised the decision to pick Walcott yesterday morning, but he looked like a man who had complete confidence in his judgement.
"I have thought about it a lot during the last month," he said. "It is a gamble, of course, but it is a nice one and he is a great talent. The pace he has is incredible and among 23 players you can take one gamble. Probably it is not logical, but sometimes you do things on a feeling. I am excited by Theo Walcott and I cannot wait to start working with him. I think it is important that [other teams know little about him]. Maybe it is not logical but sometimes things work out very well without being logical. It is a gamble but I like the idea very much."
Pace was what Eriksson talked about the most when it came to Walcott and the teenager has it in abundance. The England coach said that if he was to be used in matches it would be when the game opened up and allowed the 17-year-old to exploit the space. He last saw Walcott play on Saturday in an 11-a-side practice match at Arsenal's training ground played on half a pitch. "I don't think Arsène Wenger and Theo Walcott think he is going to play seven games [at the World Cup] for 90 minutes each but he will start on the bench and if there is space we may use his pace," Eriksson said.
"I don't know if other managers will think I am crazy but I don't think I am. If you expect him to have the impact of Pele in 1958 we are absolutely talking about the wrong thing. I am excited about it, that's good and I think he [Walcott] will be a happy man today."
Eriksson had his first conversations with Wenger about Walcott in February and has watched him in two training sessions as well as studying videos of the 23 games he played for Southampton before his January move to Arsenal for a £5m fee that could rise to £12m. Walcott has been scouted by his advisers, Tord Grip and Ray Clemence, but Eriksson did point out he had not sought the advice of Sir Clive Woodward, who is Southampton's director of football.
Yesterday, English football's latest young superstar played in the reserves for Arsenal against an Irish Under-21 team, the level he has occupied since his move to the club. He is likely to play his first game with his new colleagues in a B international against Belarus at the Madejski Stadium on 24 May. He is also likely to be excused from Arsenal's Champions' League final squad - the closest he has come to the first team is being named on the bench twice this season in Europe.
It was a remarkable day for Walcott and Lennon, but heartbreaking for Defoe and Bent, after the latter had scored 22 goals for Charlton this season. Wright-Phillips must consider his move to Chelsea for £21m a disaster after failing to make the first team and playing himself out of contention for England. King's broken metatarsal is the fourth of his left foot and Eriksson considers himself well covered for centre-backs.
The Crystal Palace striker, Andy Johnson, has edged back into the five reserves and another two uncapped players - West Ham's captain, Nigel Reo-Coker, and Liverpool's goalkeeper, Scott Carson - are among the back-up. There was no place for Phil Neville or Wes Brown.
The England manager said that a second scan on Rooney's broken metatarsal, the fourth of his right foot, in two weeks' time would give a better idea of his fitness. On Owen, Eriksson claimed that the 26-year-old would have been fit to play on Sunday but had been rested. The player was, he said, "a little bit afraid" of getting injured.
Yesterday saw a very different Eriksson, impervious to the criticism as ever but bullish about a decision to include Walcott that has left the nation's football fans astonished. "You have to make a decision," was the Swede's simple mantra. "Of course, a lot of players are disappointed and I am disappointed I cannot take more than 23. I thought a lot about this squad, but my final decision is what you see in front of you."
England's A list: New faces join old hands while youth combines with experience to bring pace to attack
* PAUL ROBINSON
Club: Tottenham Hotspur Age 26 Caps 19 Goals 0
* DAVID JAMES
Club: Manchester City Age 35 Caps 33 Goals 0
* ROBERT GREEN
Club: Norwich City Age 26 Caps 1 Goals 0
* GARY NEVILLE
Club: Manchester United Age 31 Caps 78 Goals 0
* RIO FERDINAND
Club: Manchester United Age 27 Caps 45 Goals 1
* JOHN TERRY
Club: Chelsea Age 25 Caps 22 Goals 0
* ASHLEY COLE
Club: Arsenal Age 25 Caps 44 Goals 0
* SOL CAMPBELL
Club: Arsenal Age 31 Caps 66 Goals 1
* JAMIE CARRAGHER
Club: Liverpool Age 28 Caps 23 Goals 0
* WAYNE BRIDGE
Club: Chelsea Age 25 Caps 22 Goals 1
* DAVID BECKHAM
Club: Real Madrid Age 31 Caps 87 Goals 16
* MICHAEL CARRICK
Club: Tottenham Hotspur Age 24 Caps 5 Goals 0
* FRANK LAMPARD
Club: Chelsea Age 27 Caps 38 Goals 10
* STEVEN GERRARD
Club: Liverpool Age 25 Caps 40 Goals 6
* OWEN HARGREAVES
Club: Bayern Munich Age 25 Caps 29 Goals 0
* JERMAINE JENAS
Club: Tottenham Hotspur Age 23 Caps 15 Goals 0
* STEWART DOWNING
Club: Middlesbrough Age 21 Caps 1 Goals 0
* JOE COLE
Club: Chelsea Age 24 Caps 30 Goals 5
* AARON LENNON
Club: Tottenham Hotspur Age 19 Caps 0 Goals 0
* WAYNE ROONEY
Club: Manchester United Age 20 Caps 29 Goals 11
* MICHAEL OWEN
Club: Newcastle United Age 26 Caps 75 Goals 35
* PETER CROUCH
Club: Liverpool Age 25 Caps 5 Goals 1
* THEO WALCOTT
Club: Arsenal Age 17 Caps 0 Goals 0
England's B List: Those who did not pass the audition for Sven Goran Eriksson's No 1 band
* JERMAIN DEFOE His Spurs manager, Martin Jol, describes his omission from Sven Goran Eriksson's 23 as "amazing". He may only have scored nine times this season, but recent evidence suggests he is as sharp as ever in front of goal. He is on standby, and Jol believes injuries to others may see him called up.
* DARREN BENT The Charlton striker was understandably "really disappointed" at yesterday's unexpected omission, pointing to the 22 goals he has scored in all competitions as evidence in his favour. At 22, there is still time for him, though he could surely have reasonably expected to be on standby at least.
* SHAUN WRIGHT-PHILLIPS Not long after assuring Stuart Pearce that he would be staying at Manchester City, the speedy winger decamped to Chelsea for £21m. Bad move. A measly 10 Premiership starts later, and Sven Goran Eriksson was persuaded that the equally speedy Aaron Lennon would be a better bet.
* LEDLEY KING Once the curse of the metatarsals struck, the accomplished defender/midfielder's World Cup was in doubt. He was still in most observers' predicted squads - but Eriksson, having used up all his gambling instincts on Theo Walcott and Aaron Lennon, has played safe and left King at home.Reuse content