It seems that, in English football, the greatest crime is unfulfilled potential, something that this nation has rich history in.
Two of the greatest midfielders of their respective generations, the Pauls Gascoigne and Scholes, ultimately failed to deliver what was expected due to the respective perils of personal demons and disenchantment through mismanagement. English football’s modern history is littered with talents blighted by a litany of ‘if only’s: if only he’d stayed focussed, if only he’d joined a bigger club, if only he’d worked harder.
England supporters, starved as they are of success, refuse to see it happen again.
Enter Theo Walcott. His current prescribed role seems to be that of perennial under-achiever, a forever disengaged black sheep who continues to fail to deliver on his vast promise. It is bizarre that someone such as ‘lil T’eo, nothing if not a milquetoast, is such a polarising figure, with pundits such as Alan Hansen and Chris Waddle condemning him for his lack of intelligence. Such suggestions, which he struggles manfully to mask with his pace and derring-do, stymie his progress, as well as the notion that he is an elite player, a game-changer.
In the pursuit of this open criticism by fans and pundits alike, it seems bizarre that no-one has been looking to blame anyone, especially when you consider that it can be excellent fun. It would be churlish, perhaps unpleasant to simply hold one person responsible for such a crime against football (the worst crime there is!), but it seems that one man has a lot to answer for, but continues to evade reprimand, like a fleet-footed cat-burglar. That man is one Sven-Goran Eriksson.
How odd that a man responsible for thrusting Walcott upon a ridiculously oversized pedestal would somehow escape censure, given that he has been treated with such ignominy by English football fans himself (Eriksson, of course, was once chided for his failure to take England beyond the quarter-finals of a major tournament, a level they have yet to reach since the Swede’s departure five years ago). English fans have perhaps wilted in their hostility against the man who failed to get the most out of England’s cloyingly-named golden generation, in the light of Steve McClaren and Fabio Capello failing harder and faster than Eriksson ever really did. Perhaps it is this forced reassessment that has allowed him to escape scot-free for Crimes Against Walcott.
Picking Walcott was the last desperate throw of the dice for a condemned man. His left-field inclusion represented a courage and audacity that had been conspicuous by its absence throughout the rest of Eriksson’s tenure as England manager, a courage that was lacking when it was most required (such as in his compromising accommodation of both Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard, and in failing to make Paul Scholes the creative fulcrum, as opposed to David Beckham). Eriksson put all of his chips on Walcott’s head – itself only just old enough to legally gamble – and unwittingly broadened the parameters of his career expectations forevermore.
“To hell with the consequences!”, Eriksson almost certainly would’ve said to himself, alone, into his bathroom mirror, before sheepishly questioning his sanity whilst flossing. He wouldn’t need to answer to the repercussions. He wouldn’t be expected to worry for Walcott’s future development. As it would transpire, an English public clamouring for the fresh impetus that Walcott’s inclusion promised, would remain wondering, as an out-of-his-depth Walcott didn’t play a minute of football in Germany.
If he hadn’t been picked, his career trajectory may well have followed a similar path to that of Gareth Bale. He, too, was signed by a top London club from Southampton as a seventeen-year-old, based on similar qualities, most notably skill, pace, but above all potential. Bale did not suffer from the same burden of expectation (which would have just as much to do with Bale being Welsh and not English, of course), and was allowed to develop whilst maintaining a safe distance from the unforgiving glare of the spotlight. When Bale endured a run of 24 Premier League games without winning for Tottenham, it was treated as a joke, an amusing curio and nothing more. By this time Bale was aged 20, and was struggling to displace Benoit Assou-Ekotto as left-back. We all know what happened next.
For Walcott, his fast-track to the full England side saddled him with the millstone of being the next Wayne Rooney or Michael Owen, the precocious youth capable of sparking fresh life into the fading golden generation. Since then, he hasn’t been afforded the same patience that Bale was. I was recently reminded of Walcott’s first Arsenal goal, which came in the 2007 Carling Cup final against Chelsea. Watching the highlights of the game, in the aftermath of that opening goal, the commentary damned him with faint praise, speaking of how he was “turning things around at last” and “finally delivering on his potential”. Then aged 18, it was only his 28th game in Arsenal colours. When did this become an age to prove one’s calibre?
Perhaps it’s the fault of his prodigial predecessors for raising the bar too high – Rooney, Owen, Scholes, Gascoigne. The expectations were too high because, when fans want success and get none, they try and manufacture their own trophies. They wanted a player to frighten the world. Walcott is still only running around with a bedsheet over his head, flailing wildly to remove it to show the bared teeth beneath.
It seems that Walcott has been around forever, but he is still only 22. His career thus far has hardly been a failure, and yet it seems as though it is, as if we’re nearing the point where backs are turned on him and we look to the next great white hope, which was Walcott’s first prescribed role when Eriksson gambled on his future in 2006.
Maybe Walcott’s greatest contribution to England’s cause will be to deflect attention from the next crop of youngsters, so that they can prosper in relative peace. In the meantime, he will continue to shout boo, hoping that one day it will be enough to make people flinch.