Capello axe completes Walcott's rapid fall
THEO WALCOTT got the first hint that his World Cup place was in doubt when Fabio Capello picked him out in front of the England squad when they watched a DVD of the Mexico game last week and gave the winger a public dressing-down for his performance.
Yesterday, Walcott's worst fears were confirmed when, having failed to respond in the following game against Japan on Sunday, Capello left him out of his final 23-man squad for the flight to South Africa this afternoon. The 21-year-old was told the news by phone from Capello when he was on the golf course with his father Don.
The England players had their doubts about Walcott, who lost out on the two right-wing places to Aaron Lennon and Shaun Wright-Phillips, after the Mexico debriefing. Previous to that he had been one of Capello's favourites and a regular starter when fit following his hat-trick against Croatia in Zagreb in September 2008 but the hairdryer treatment from the Italian showed his faith was beginning to ebb.
It was a dramatic turnaround in fortunes for a player who was a shock inclusion in Sven-Goran Eriksson's squad four years ago as a 17-year-old having never played a Premier League game for Arsenal. This time around his family and agent were already booked into the Sun City resort near Rustenburg, where England play the USA on June 12, in anticipation of him being in the squad.
Capello is understood to have regarded the decision to take one from Walcott, Lennon and Wright-Phillips as by far his toughest call from England's World Cup qualifying campaign.
In retrospect, however, there were words from Capello after Walcott's greatest moment which proved telling.
They date back to the night in Croatia when Walcott's hat-trick had got the Capello bandwagon rolling.
Afterwards, at the Maksimir Stadium, journalists crowded around Capello to ask him about the night his then 19-year-old striker had come of age and whether it was going to be a problem keeping Walcott's feet on the ground.
"No, I just say to the players that it is their second (competitive) game under me," Capello said. "It is a long way until we arrive in South Africa. We have to play every game like this."
Say what you like about Capello, and he has just been through the most erratic three weeks of his England regime, but he never made any promises he could not keep.
He gave Walcott every chance to build on that performance in Croatia, when at last he looked like the player whom Eriksson, more than two years earlier, had hoped he would be.
Against Croatia that night, it seemed that Walcott would be one of the cornerstones of this World Cup team. His proud father stopped by in the bar of the Sheraton hotel in Zagreb that night to toast his son's success.
By the end of the season, he had a new Arsenal contract. And in the following 19 months, Capello unfailingly picked him when he was fit and available; until, that is, yesterday lunchtime when he dropped the winger from his World Cup squad.
By all accounts, Walcott had a torrid time in training during England's pre-World Cup stay in Austria. His old fault of over-running the ball plagued him again even when he was not under pressure.
He was one of just four players who started both matches against Mexico and Japan and, a few early runs in the first game aside, he looked completely off the pace.
When the England manager said after the victory over Japan on Sunday that nothing he had seen that afternoon at the UPC Arena in Graz had changed his mind, he was not kidding.
No-one had made the assumption that an aimless performance from Walcott, in which he consistently ran into trouble and lost the ball, had confirmed to the England manager that his hero of Zagreb was no longer up to it.
It is often forgotten that Walcott is still extremely young -- he was only 21 in March, and he does not always get the credit for what he has achieved thus far in his career. The most trenchant criticism of him has come from Chris Waddle who, when commentating on a game against Egypt, accused Walcott of failing to understand the game.
Few players that young could hope to understand it as well as Waddle once did, but the criticism has stuck.
Perhaps that was what Capello thought as Walcott ran into countless dead-ends against Japan. Walcott is, after all, 20 months younger than Adam Johnson, whom Capello considers one for the future.
There is no reason why Walcott cannot finally make a World Cup appearance after his 2006 false start, although yesterday is likely to have proved a chastening experience.
Given Walcott's earlier pre-eminence ahead of Lennon and Wright-Phillips, it is hard not to think that the Arsenal man played himself out of the squad rather than Wright-Phillips in particular playing himself in.
Either way, it is a spectacular fall from grace. Walcott has lost his place to two right-wingers who have never really hit the heights for Capello.
Injury meant Lennon did not even play in a Capello England team until the Italian was almost two years into the job, and Wright-Phillips has only started five games under him.
It makes you wonder whether Walcott's problem has been his injuries or something more deep-seated.
The great shame for Walcott was that his biggest injury of the last two years was sustained while he was on England duty in a training session in Berlin in November 2008.
There was an ambulance taken to the side of the pitch that night in the Olympic Stadium when he dislocated his shoulder and did not play again for Arsenal until March.
Soon after he came back, he hurt his knee and missed the next two World Cup qualifiers, only coming back for the end-of-season games against Kazakhstan and Andorra.
But as usual he went straight into the team for both games. Before yesterday, if you had to name Capello's favourites, then Walcott would have figured highly among them.
The kindest thing to say about Walcott's misfortune is that he has had terrible luck with injuries. Starting with the friendly against the Netherlands in August, Walcott missed six England games through injury, only coming back for the Egypt match in March.
Then, as against Mexico and Japan last month, he was fast-tracked straight back into the team by Capello. Walcott had won his place back in a faltering Arsenal team for the last four games of their Premier League season.
His best moment had come against Barcelona in the Champions League semi-final first leg at the Emirates when he scored one goal and helped inspire Arsenal to fight back from two down.
Had the season finished then, he would surely have gone to the World Cup but even with Arsenal needing to score in the Nou Camp, Walcott was still forced to start on the bench.
As Capello once said, it has been a long road to South Africa. (© Independent News Service)