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Walcott pays for lack of progress

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Phil McNulty | 16:04 UK time, Tuesday, 1 June 2010

Theo Walcott will spend his summer doing exactly what he did four years ago - playing the part of an idle bystander watching England attempting to win the World Cup. But there is a crucial and personally devastating difference this time around.

Turn the clock back to Baden-Baden in 2006 and Walcott was simply happy - and probably utterly bemused - to be in Germany. The big story in Sven-Goran Eriksson's final squad, the Arsenal player was a nonsensical selection that had cynics suggesting the Swede was revealing a hitherto undetected sense of humour by picking a player he had only previously seen in training.

Now, four years on, Walcott is headline news again following England's chaotic World Cup squad announcement, the hat-trick hero of the crucial qualifying win in Croatia ruthlessly dumped on the scrapheap by Fabio Capello ahead of the South African campaign.

Walcott would have been banking on being on the plane that left Heathrow on Wednesday until he received Capello's fateful phone call while on the golf course - and in an instant his fall from grace since that balmy night in Zagreb was brutally underlined.

Now he will have all summer - and a World Cup - to reflect on his failure to develop into the world-class attacking talent we all thought we were watching in September 2008.

Walcott's exclusion can be justified by Capello on the grounds he has produced little of huge significance since, his career stalling on the twin obstacles of injury and lack of form.

Theo Walcott in action for EnglandWalcott's chance will come again. Photo: Reuters

He cannot draw on the reservoir of goodwill he created in Croatia forever and has not been good enough. Capello has called time, albeit temporarily, on his England career and delivered a harsh lesson that results are what he requires from his players.

Capello has been a big Walcott supporter, but the player's failings were evident against Mexico at Wembley last week. The burning pace was there, the ability to beat a man was there, but so was the lack of end product that has presumably weighed so heavily against him in Capello's calculations.

As for the man who has presumably pinched Walcott's seat on the plane, namely Manchester City's Shaun Wright-Phillips, he hardly boasts a glowing list of England achievements himself.

Aaron Lennon would have been my choice ahead of Walcott for the right-flank slot, despite the Tottenham man's injury problems, but the Arsenal attacker's potentially destructive speed would have made him a worthwhile understudy as an impact substitute.

This role will now be filled by the highly fortunate Wright-Phillips, unless Capello has another plan in mind. I have never been convinced by Wright-Phillips at international level - and his form at Eastlands faded to such an extent last season that he was overtaken by the excellent Adam Johnson, also left out by Capello.

Johnson did not have quite enough time to mount his full case for inclusion, but he is a real talent and will surely have plenty of opportunities in the future.

Walcott, for his part, must go back to Arsenal - and the safe hands of Arsene Wenger - to reconstruct the elements of his game that compelled Capello to dispose of him from his World Cup plans.

BBC pundit Chris Waddle drew a strong response from Wenger last season when he said the following about Walcott: "I've never seen him develop. He just doesn't understand the game for me - where to be running, when to run inside a full-back, when to just play a one-two. It's all off the cuff.

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England's World Cup qualifying highlights

"I just don't think he's got a football brain and he's going to have problems. Let's be honest, good defenders would catch him offside every time."

It may just be that Capello concurs, but Walcott is a highly-intelligent individual, not to mention dignified judging by his response to being omitted, so no-one should believe the final credits have rolled on his England career.

Capello's squad announcement carried a vaguely disorganised air, out of character with the Italian's meticulous attention to detail, with news of rumoured ins and outs appearing with such regularity that it was in danger of developing into some sort of World Cup hokey-cokey.

Let's hope the disorganisation ends here. The real news was the squad itself, no matter how it was finally announced, and leaves us with plenty to sift through.

Gareth Barry's return to fitness after ankle problems will have been greeted with delight by Capello, who sees his expertise in a holding role as vital, allowing him options in his use of Steven Gerrard, rather than pairing the Liverpool captain with Frank Lampard.

Michael Carrick is included and will provide cover in the central midfield area, leaving West Ham's Scott Parker and Tottenham's Tom Huddlestone to swallow their disappointment.

Carrick is a lucky man. He has been in decline for the last 12 months at club level and wins his place on what he has done in the past as opposed to what he has done recently.

The same applies to Aston Villa's Emile Heskey, who will be hoping his status as the man who gets the best out of Wayne Rooney - do we really have to rely on Heskey to make Rooney flourish? - guarantees him not just a place on the plane but in the team.

My own stated preference is for Gerrard to play just behind Rooney, but Heskey's supporters rightly quote statistics about how well England perform when he plays. Let's hope they are right when the final World Cup reckoning is made, especially given Peter Crouch's almost embarrassingly superior goals tally.

Darren Bent's impressive goalscoring record has once again counted for nothing, in the same way it failed to impress Eriksson four years ago. It is hard not to feel sorry for a striker who has not had the best of fortune with England. But some players seem destined to be nearly men at international level - and Bent is one of them.

While expressing reservations about the continued presence of goal-shy Heskey in Capello's squad, the decision to include Joe Cole is to be roundly applauded.

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World Cup guide - England

Cole was one of few - maybe two if you count Owen Hargreaves - unqualified England successes at the last World Cup. He brings a dash of invention and enthusiasm as well as moments of potentially game-changing skill.

Chelsea's apparent willingness to part with him on a free transfer is a mystery - and he now has the perfect platform to show the Blues what they might be giving up. Apart from his natural ability, Cole is a hugely popular member of the England squad whose presence will be welcomed.

If Capello's decision to pick Cole came late in the day, it could yet prove to be inspired.

Capello is counting on experience in defence as cover for the tried and (sort of) trusted quartet of Rio Ferdinand, John Terry, Glen Johnson and Ashley Cole.

Jamie Carragher's return from England exile has been rewarded, as it was always going to be, with a place in the final squad, while Capello has ignored Ledley King's catastrophic injury record and struggles against Mexico to count on the quality he showed for Spurs in the final weeks of the season.

Aston Villa defender Stephen Warnock performed that most unique of feats - playing himself into a World Cup squad by simply sitting on the sidelines.

Reduced to the role of spectator in England's last two friendlies, he was able to watch his main rival, Everton's Leighton Baines, implode against Mexico and then arguably make up Capello's mind by publicly expressing his fears about homesickness if he was selected.

It is to be hoped Baines' exclusion is based solely on performance. It is hardly a punishable offence to admit to the highly human emotion of missing your family when you are away from home.

The goalkeeping trio of David James, Joe Hart and Robert Green were, of course, already confirmed. Who will start against the United States in Rustenburg is not such a certainty.

England's squad boasts experience, options and a world-class player who will fashion their fortunes in Manchester United's Wayne Rooney. Will it have enough world-class talent in other areas to end the 44-year wait to claim the game's greatest prize?

Capello now has less that a fortnight to answer the questions over form, formations and fitness. He has the men he hopes will win the World Cup for England.

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