The Nick Townsend Column: Sven's comedy turns: Little and Large, Walcott's Half-hour and the Diddy Men
Sunday 28 May 2006
He was received rapturously on his entrance to big-time football by a crowd feverish with anticipation. Afterwards, members of the Thames Valley constabulary were forced to restrain the crowd as Theo Walcott made to depart Reading's Madejski Stadium which, like him, had been familiar with football of no greater distinction than Championship standard.
As his girlfriend, Melanie Slade - presumably having a night off from AS-level revision - looked on apprehensively, his first taste of that elevation came soon after he had emerged for Walcott's Half-hour, when he bought a tasty sandwich, a Belarus butty, as he was intercepted by two visiting defenders.
Thereafter, young Walcott was not quick enough to one ball, allowed another to elude him and, in between, discharged a meaty long-range effort directly at the visitors' substitute goalkeeper. He otherwise appeared a rather lost soul, as first he was partnered by Peter Crouch, then Jermain Defoe. Only Sven Goran Eriksson could contrive to switch from Little and Large to the Diddy Men within 30 minutes.
Welcome to Eriksson's wonderful world of uncertainties, Theo. On his debut night, the Arsenal striker-elect was what he is: willing, clearly exceedingly able, but unprepared for this new environment, though it required Eriksson, of all people, to hurl a vat of cold water over any more grandiose notions.
"I don't think anyone expects him to win the World Cup," declared the England coach. None of those youngsters will win the World Cup for us. Who will win the World Cup for us are the senior players, for sure. But they are useful in a game; useful in two games, who knows?"
"They" referred to Walcott and Aaron Lennon: 17 and 19 respectively. You could probably add Stewart Downing. One senior cap between them, but it was the principal reason why this curious fixture had assumed significant proportions.
Walcott emerged with his reputation unscathed. Nothing more or less, though he still overflows with potential. As for Lennon, the Tottenham man embarrassed Alexander Yurevich early on with his explosive wing play but, despite some rave notices, judgement must surely be suspended until England face superior opposition than this. "If you are a football fan, you like to see players who can beat defenders," Eriksson enthused. "He has good technique, a good touch on the ball, he scores goals, and has pace, of course." In truth, Eriksson will recognise that all Thursday's performances should be placed in context.
Never mind England's 2-1 defeat by a team who finished with 10 men (Belarus are ranked in the 60s by Fifa). Without their best player, Walcott's Arsenal team-mate Alexander Hleb, they were a pretty uninspiring bunch. What England's young B-listers did discover, however, was that just about any international makes demands not experienced in the Premiership.
Which made it doubly difficult for Walcott, who has not even encountered that level. "I'm not worried about him because he can handle it," insisted Eriksson. "Of course, he has a lot of things to learn. That's why I've always said that it's a gamble. I put my hands up. But I think in a squad of 23 players you can afford that. After tonight I'm happy I did it. I'm happy every time I see him practise. Yes, he's special, because he's our quickest player."
Such positivity was not restricted to Walcott. Afterwards Eriksson was like a teacher hurling back marked exercise books to his class. And guess what? It was gold stars all round. Just about, anyway. Maybe an A-minus for Carrick, M. But he was suffering from nerves, according to the coach, whose steel-rimmed specs seem to have a magical effect on his perception of his men.
The coach clearly has it in mind to introduce Walcott or Lennon as a galvanising strategy during the World Cup, if the situation demands it. "You wouldn't start them in the first match," he said. "But during the game, after the first game, who knows?"
In Lennon's case, would that mean substituting his captain? Eriksson claimed that didn't necessarily follow. "I'm sure Lennon could also play as a second striker for the last 15 minutes; take the ball and beat people. Or Beckham could move to play in central midfield. Why not? The fact is today that all four midfielders are in great form. It's not like it was before Japan, when Beckham was half-injured, 70 per cent, whatever. In Japan, what was the alternative? I think that Beckham deserved to play even if he was not 100 per cent. Then we didn't have the alternative of someone like Lennon, beating people and putting in crosses."
Despite that encouragement for his less experienced contingent, Eriksson emphasised that, unlike his counterpart, Alf Ramsey, 40 years ago, he is disinclined to abandon his proven strategy or favoured personnel. "I am talking not about a mediocre football team," he stressed. "I am talking about four midfielders, and two up front, who are considered among the best in the world. If Beckham, Gerrard, Lampard, Joe Cole, Rooney, and Owen are all fit, they should start. All are in good condition except Wayne Rooney. All of them have had a fitness test, and the results are much, much better than two years ago. And there's a huge difference to four years ago."
England followers can only hope that England's performances, should they reach the latter stages, are similarly enhan-ced. And that this time Eriksson won't dally when he should be making crucial changes.
Protective Ferguson versus desperate Eriksson
Barely a day goes by without the query, from tradesman, shopkeeper, bank manager: "So, do you reckon Rooney will make it, then?" This on the basis that we sports writers will somehow have more of the ear of Sven Goran Eriksson and Sir Alex Ferguson than anyone else on such matters. So you reply: "Not a chance." Just to wind them up, of course, before launching into a prognosis like some kind of modern-day Sir Lancelot Spratt.
You hardly required a professorship in medicine to realise that from the moment the Manchester United striker tumbled at Stamford Bridge, at best Wayne Rooney might just make the last knockings of the tournament, assuming England are still around. The most recent MRI scan merely confirmed that.
But in what state would he make his entrance? Eriksson took a chance with David Beckham in 2002. Despite the England coach's attempt to justify his deployment then, that decision is generally perceived as an error. The suspicion is that a man who is desperate to leave a legacy will not have learnt from that experience, even though logic suggests that Rooney should recuperate at home and return to fitness in his own time, not by Eriksson's stopwatch.
In the circumstances, can anyone blame Ferguson for being protective over what is an expensive investment for Manchester United, but one which England are borrowing? Like a library book, who knows in what condition he will be returned?
One suspects that Eriksson's desperation is all the more pronounced because his squad are light on forwards. He has to trust that Michael Owen will regain fitness (on Thursday's evidence he is some way short) and Peter Crouch's abilities on the World Cup stage have still to be demonstrated. Increasingly, it makes his decision to subject Theo Walcott to such a premature examination of his talent all the more baffling.
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