The Nick Townsend Column: Henry's kiss hints at final goodbye as England expect Theo to grow up fast

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The Independent Football

It should not by any surprise to us that what they have in common, albeit indirectly, is Arsène Wenger, who in the course of two weeks has cleared a passage for Steve McClaren's elevation to succeed Sven Goran Eriksson by generously refusing to consider the post himself, and has then even more obligingly helped the Swede select his England World Cup squad by recommending Theo Walcott, a young man whom the Frenchman has kept as fresh as a newly-picked lettuce and packaged him in an atmosphere-free, and incident-free, polythene bag.

Yet there is a limit to even Wenger's influence on the English footballing stage. He was in coquettish mood last week - when asked whether he would insist that Thierry Henry saw out the remainder of his contract, which still has a year left on it, he claimed: "No, I have not gone as far as that, but I'm convinced he will stay." But the truth is that unless a massive deception is being staged, he is no more privy to his countryman's plans than the rest of us.

Wenger believes his captain should be voted the best player in the world - "he has made a step forward and matured every year and now is team leader and an exceptional striker". But Henry himself expects us to accept he is still undecided about whether he intends to collect a king's ransom next season from Arsenal or Barcelona. Can this be plausible?

The suspicion lingers that he will depart at the conclusion of this, his seventh season at Arsenal, and the final year for the entire club at Highbury.

Was the kissing of the turf after the completion of his hat-trick on Sunday merely a reflection of his affection for the old stadium, as he protests? Or a gesture of finality? That latter assumption would actually be strengthened if the north London club conquer the Spanish behemoth in three days' time. Domestic titles, cups, FA and now European, could be in Henry's possession. What challenge would remain?

If he was intending to board the removal van with the Gunners to the Emirates Stadium, surely he would have declared the fact. If he is to depart, then Henry may believe that such a disclosure could have been a distraction to the club's progress towards, and participation in, the Champions' League final.

Wenger is correct in stating that the French striker is at the zenith of his powers, both as a team man and an individual executioner of extraordinary goals. Though he would leave behind a host of precious memories for Arsenal supporters together with a bequest of young talent assembled by Wenger but which he has helped to shape, the vacuum Henry would leave would be significant.

But while this visionary manager remains, Arsenal followers can continue to anticipate the steady arrival of outstanding newcomers, among whom was Henry, then a far from fully-formed footballer. If he leaves as one overflowing with achievement - 214 goals from 324 appearances - he will at least be replaced by another brimming with potential, a promise so great that Eriksson has effectively said to certain experienced players on the England peripherary: I think so little of you as World Cup performers that I'm picking that teenage bench-warmer from Highbury.

Strikers Darren Bent and Jermain Defoe, the latter on stand-by, may not appreciate such an analysis, but that is the brutal truth. But then nothing surprises you in this most inauspicious period for England football, when McClaren, still believed to be the selection panel's second choice, is hailed as the man to take the nation's football forward.

So, is Walcott's selection inspired, a rare piece of bravery from Eriksson, or sheer foolhardiness, given that Wayne Rooney is unlikely to participate and fellow metatarsal victim Michael Owen's recent fitness record is hardly convincing? The decision says everything about a man who has clearly selected his demob suit well in advance of his departure. It does not make it wrong, but when a coach begins to talk about "a gamble" and "a feeling" you do begin to wonder - particularly when confronted with a man whose name is a byword for caution.

Yet, is it right to entrust a boy with such a responsibility? Wenger speaks of Walcott as Eriksson's "secret weapon". But even secret weapons usually have the benefit of testing. Barnes Wallis wouldn't have had his "Dambusters" loaded on to bombers without trying them out on lakes first. So, it would have been judicious if Eriksson could have witnessed Walcott remove his much-discussed L-plates and take his career for a brief spin in the Premiership.

Wenger explains the former Southampton player's omission from Arsenal's Premiership sides thus: "As well as him, I have [Jose Antonio] Reyes, [Robin] van Persie, Bergkamp and, of course, Henry. We were chasing Tottenham, and I didn't want to take a gamble, because I could not afford to."

Curious that he is quite content that Eriksson should do so, and in the biggest tournament of them all.

Roeder's antidote to anger management game

Many people's idea of an overheating, demanding, fit-to-burst his blood pressure monitor football manager is Ray Winstone's portrayal in Channel 4's drama All in the Game in which he sounded like Barry Fry trapped inside Terry Venables' body.

What no one expects is a Glenn Roeder, who contrary to every expectation when Graeme Souness was ousted from Newcastle is far from being the big-name successor that their followers habitually crave. Yet success mollifies the most demanding voices among supporters, and persuades the most aspirational chairman. Ten victories from 15 League games since Roeder and Alan Shearer stepped in to elevate the club to the InterToto Cup, have convinced chairman Freddy Shepherd to upgrade the former Academy chief.

In other circumstances, it would be a remarkable story of the quiet, unassuming guy - and a former Newcastle player, at that - re-emerging at the top once more, a position he was forced to relinquish in 2003 when, as manager of West Ham, he suffered a brain aneurism. That prevented him taking his coaching Pro Licence, which Uefa say all Premiership managers must have. Newcastle have dispensation, claiming that Roeder will now take the course. But the League Managers' Association are furious.

In truth, the objection of the managers appears less about their faith in the structure, and more about the argument "We've had to go through the system. Why shouldn't he?" I suspect that one manager I spoke to was typical of many among the fraternity when he said: "There's no point in having these regulations and then ignoring them."

Is such irritation justified? The LMA's belief that managerial standards should be improved and maintained is admirable. But there must be some reasonable exceptions to the "rules is rules" insistence. There must be flexibility to allow for a man of Roeder's undoubted capabilities.