The Nick Townsend Column: Sven's comedy turns: Little and Large, Walcott's Half-hour and the Diddy Men

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.

There will be a chance to bid for a rare example of the SAS Diary, collated by a former member of the regiment in the aftermath of World War II but only published – in a limited run of just 5,000 – in 2011
charity appealTime is running out to secure your favourite lot as our auction closes at 2pm tomorrow
Arts and Entertainment
Mark Wright has won The Apprentice 2014
tvThe Apprentice 2014 final
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor winner Ben Haenow has scored his first Christmas number one
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special
File: James Woods attends the 52nd New York Film Festival at Walter Reade Theater on September 27, 2014
peopleActor was tweeting in wake of NYPD police shooting
Claudia Winkleman and co-host Tess Daly at the Strictly Come Dancing final
peopleLiam Williams posted photo of himself dressed as Wilfried Bony
Martin Skrtel heads in the dramatic equaliser
SPORTLiverpool vs Arsenal match report: Bandaged Martin Skrtel heads home in the 97th-minute
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Bleacher Report

Daily Quiz
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Day In a Page

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

The 12 ways of Christmas

We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

The male exhibits strange behaviour

A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'
Marian Keyes: The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment

Marian Keyes

The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef creates an Italian-inspired fish feast for Christmas Eve

Bill Granger's Christmas Eve fish feast

Bill's Italian friends introduced him to the Roman Catholic custom of a lavish fish supper on Christmas Eve. Here, he gives the tradition his own spin…
Liverpool vs Arsenal: Brendan Rodgers is fighting for his reputation

Rodgers fights for his reputation

Liverpool manager tries to stay on his feet despite waves of criticism
Amir Khan: 'The Taliban can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'

Amir Khan attacks the Taliban

'They can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'
Michael Calvin: Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick