It is hard to believe that in five months’ time, Theo Walcott will turn 30 years old. It it is 12 years since he was the shock teenage inclusion in Sven Goran-Eriksson’s England squad for the 2006 World Cup squad. It is a decade since he scored a hat-trick for the Three Lions away to Croatia in a 4-1 thrashing in qualifying for the 2010 World Cup.
The game was Fabio Capello’s just second competitive fixture as manager, and only Walcott’s fourth cap, having not been selected at all during Steve McClaren’s ill-fated tenure.
Starting ahead of David Beckham for the second game in a row, the 19-year-old’s first two goals were carbon copies of one another. Finding acres of space on the right hand side of the box, he lashed past Stipe Pletikosa into the far corner in minutes 26 and 59 respectively. After seeing Wayne Rooney make it three and Mario Mandzukic pull one back for the hosts, Walcott completed his hat-trick eight minutes from time as he calmly finished from a one on one scenario after being played through by Rooney.
Despite having not even reached his 20s, Walcott’s international career could arguably be said to have peaked on that night in Zagreb.
He did not score again for England for another four years – going 21 matches without netting. In total he has recorded just five further goals in a total of 47 caps for his country, and has not appeared for the national team since a friendly against Spain in November 2016. Of the five international tournaments that England have qualified since Walcott’s inclusion in the 2006 World Cup squad, he has been selected for just one of them, Euro 2012.
But maybe that is being a little harsh on the winger, whose exclusion from a couple of squads has been either been branded as slightly harsh or put down to injury troubles. Incredibly, Walcott actually has the highest win percentage with England (70.2%) out of any player ever to have earned more than 40 caps for the Three Lions. In addition, he has never lost a competitive match with the national side.
So is there a way back in for him after a two year exodus? Gareth Southgate continually puts on emphasis on players needing to be featuring regularly at club level in order to be selected, and Walcott would likely have had that in mind when he joined Everton in January after fading out of the picture in his 13th season at Arsenal.
It perhaps would have been fitting for Walcott to return to the national team fold as England return to Croatia tonight for the first time since that 4-1 victory. A call up certainly wouldn’t have been undeserved, with the winger recording three goals and two assists for the Toffees so far this season.
Speaking in August, Walcott said of his international ambitions: “obviously you always want to play for your country. I’ve got 47 caps and I want that to be a lot more”.
But perhaps there is just not a place for Walcott in this young and fresh England side. The winger’s teammates in his last international included Joe Hart, Phil Jagielka, Andros Townsend and Aaron Cresswell, players who sum up the bland nature of the squad back then compared to the current crop. If Walcott, 29, had been picked for this month’s fixtures, he would have been the oldest in the squad by 15 months.
What’s more, if you were to categorise Walcott, a fair label might be ‘a pacy winger’. It was the reason why he generated so much hype when he first broke onto the scene, but also the reason why he may be lacking relevancy in the modern game, certainly with Southgate’s England. ‘Pacy wingers’, to use the term again, simply aren’t needed as often anymore. Meanwhile, England aim to play out from the back, with width being provided by wing-backs as opposed to wingers. The most likely role Walcott could play would be sitting just behind the striker as Raheem Sterling did at the World Cup. But the Manchester City man and Marcus Rashford are at least two better options in that position.
Another player clearly ahead of Walcott in Southgate’s thinking is 18-year-old Jadon Sancho, with the Borussia Dortmund forward being one of a number of headline inclusions in last week’s ground-breaking squad announcement that was indicative of the direction the team is heading in. James Maddison (21) and Mason Mount (19) will also be hoping to make their debuts against Croatia, whilst Ben Chilwell (21) will likely make his first start.
It’s a lot of pressure to be placing on young shoulders for such a crucial UEFA Nations League fixture, but Walcott feels that Sancho especially is more than capable of performing for his country:
“He can deal with it, he’s been in the Dortmund dressing room, he’s played at their stadium which is fantastic. He won’t be fazed at all.
“It’s completely different now, there are a lot of young players in that group. When I came through there was Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard – completely established players in the team – so it’s a different environment I would say.
“Of course, it’s still daunting, but when you get down on the field and play football that’s all you want to do, you just want to play, it doesn’t matter who it’s for.
“You just want to go out there and do your best and I’m sure everyone will.”
Whilst he doesn’t specify, it is implied that Walcott feels he personally struggled to fit in consistently with England due to an intimidating dressing room atmosphere.
But with this promising and ego-less group of players that has an average age of just under 23 and a half years old, Southgate is certainly providing an environment in which young players can thrive. We’re entering the unknown slightly with this England team, but let’s hope it’s not a false dawn like Walcott’s Zagreb treble ten years ago.