Stuart Pearce, the England Under-21 coach, last night assured Theo Walcott his development was progressing well. The Arsenal striker has only completed one Premier League match this season and was recently advised by David Bentley to follow the Blackburn midfielder's own example and leave the Gunners to further his career.
Arsène Wenger responded angrily to the suggestion and Pearce last night backed up the Arsenal manager. Walcott does not celebrate his 19th birthday until Sunday and Pearce said: "Theo's playing two or three years short and he's second youngest in the Under-21s, yet he's played every game for me.
"This season I've heard people say, 'Theo's not lived up to expectations', then it's, 'Theo's ready for the seniors'. It depends, on any given Saturday, what he's done in a game.
"Someone turns up and views him, and says, 'He's scored two goals in a Champions League game, pitch him in'. It's all boom and bust, short-termism, as it usually is in this country." Pearce added: "People need to give players the opportunity to come through slowly. It is important he divorces himself from all the talk, the good thing is he's level-headed enough to do that.
"I think he will turn round at the end of the year and think, 'Hang on a minute, I've played every game for the Under-21s, I've played x games for Arsenal this year, and when I look in the mirror I'm still only 19. My development's going quite well." Walcott has made more than 50 appearances for Arsenal but the bulk of them have been from the bench. When he does start he rarely finishes. He has played six full matches but four have been against moderate opposition in Europe and one in the Carling Cup.
He is, though, only 18. Were it not for his being called up to the 2006 World Cup, before he had played in the Premier League, no one would think anything odd about the pace of his development. Fortunately, as Pearce says, he does seem to have taken things in his stride. "He's a fantastic boy, very, very keen to learn," added Pearce.
The Under-21 manager was talking at a demonstration of the FA Tesco Skills Programme, which is aimed at 5-11 year-olds, in Portsmouth.
He looked around, at the kids chasing balls in the freezing wind, and said in reference to both Walcott and them, "In a few years time it will all bear fruit. We have to look long-term."
To that end Pearce intends to rest some of his key Under-21 personnel from forthcoming friendlies against Poland, at Wolverhampton on 25 March, and Wales in May, with a view to both looking at fringe players before the resumption of competitive qualifiers in September, and proving to club managers he takes their interests seriously.
"I'll contact some of the big-hitters who have done well for me, and [unlike Walcott] have been playing week-in, week-out for their clubs and say I know what you can do, stay at the club," he said.
"Hopefully their managers will turn round and say, 'Ah, we have an Under-21 manager with a bit of common sense'."
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