LONDON — The phone calls started before England’s World Cup squad was officially announced. The rumor mill told us Theo Walcott was the shock omission from Fabio Capello’s selection for South Africa and the country was not happy.
Radio stations were on meltdown with angry and bewildered fans.
Yes, I would have included the Arsenal forward who combines speed, potential and frustration in almost equal proportions.
While no manager is beyond criticism and debate is the lifeblood of any sport, Capello surely deserves our trust because he has earned it. The Italian has made few mistakes in competitive games — friendlies are glorified training matches and are quickly forgotten — and England secured its place in the finals with a perfect record.
Surely he deserves our trust whatever our personal feelings. We have disagreed with his team selections only to be proved wrong, yet the phone-ins were alive to the sound of vitriol.
Of course, whoever Capello, or any national coach, selects there would be dissenting voices, but those raging about Walcott’s non-selection were so loud the Noise Abatement Society was almost on stand-by.
Walcott burst on to the international scene in 2006 when Sven-Goran Eriksson included the teenager in the squad for Germany, but he never got off the substitutes’ bench.
As the 2010 qualifiers got under way, Walcott scored a stunning hat trick against Croatia in Zagreb in September 2008. There are those who believe that two years later Walcott has not advanced, others feel his omission is as nonsensical as his inclusion four years ago.
The credit from Zagreb has run out. Capello would have loved to pick Walcott, but he continues to flatter to deceive.
Whenever Walcott, he of the burning pace and ability to leave a defender in his wake, receives the ball there is a sense of anticipation . . . a few seconds later that turns to disappointment. He has everything except the end product.
Just about everyone except Capello believed Walcott — 1-16 to be in the squad — could be an impact sub, a player to run at tiring defenders. We are obsessed with the starting XI, but the team that finishes a game is as important and Walcott has the raw pace to make the difference in the last 15 or 20 minutes.
Capello played Walcott in the two warmup friendlies, against Mexico and Japan, no doubt wanting the winger to produce, even fleetingly, the magic he is capable of, but he failed the audition. It’s a familiar scenario . . . Walcott receives the ball, runs past his marker and crosses the ball to no one.
Walcott was told the bad news while on the golf course. The inevitable joke was that Walcott made the green in two only to take five attempts to find the hole.
The word is Walcott did not impress Capello in training. In trying to cross the ball to Peter Crouch, the tallest player ever to play for England, Walcott’s aim was far from true. On one occasion the ball went straight in the net, which prompted an obviously unimpressed Capello to say: “Nice cross.”
It says much about Capello’s frustration with Walcott that he selected Aaron Lennon, yet to score in 17 internationals and Shaun Wright-Phillips, not a regular for Manchester City in recent months, as the wide men ahead of the Arsenal player.
It wasn’t so much that Lennon and Wright-Phillips played their way into the squad as Walcott played his way out of it. Even Walcott’s supporters would admit their faith in him is more hope than expectancy and it will be interesting to see how the 21-year-old reacts to the public humiliation and setback.
Capello’s biggest gamble is the inclusion of Gareth Barry, who has not played since May 5 because of an ankle injury. No player has represented England more times than Barry over the last 2 1/2 years and as the most defensive midfielder he is fundamental to Capello’s plan.
Taking players less than fully fit to World Cups — notably Wayne Rooney four years ago — proved a mistake, but there is no suitable replacement for Barry in the squad so his absence would mean a change of formation.
Darren Bent can consider himself unlucky because in the past five years only Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo have scored more Premier League goals than the Sunderland striker. Bent doesn’t fit into Capello’s preferred tactics which is a center-forward who runs the channels, stretches defenses and creates space for Rooney.
Emile Heskey may only have scored seven goals in 57 internationals, but Rooney’s record is much better when he is alongside the selfless Aston Villa man.
England’s first XI is probably Green; Johnson, Terry, Ferdinand, A. Cole; Lennon, Gerrard, Lampard, Barry; Rooney, Heskey. It is a solid, competitive side.
The worry is the lack of backups in certain positions, notably left-back — Stephen Warnock has just one cap.
Christopher Davies was a longtime Premier League correspondent for theLondon Daily Telegraph.