Turning another year older can sometimes spark worries about the future and that certainly proved the case for Theo Walcott on his 28th birthday yesterday.
Any plans to celebrate were cut short when England coach Gareth Southgate called in the morning to say he was not in the squad to face Germany and Lithuania next week.
Given this was Southgate’s first selection since being put in charge on a permanent basis in November, it was always going to send a strong signal of intent. The fact England were already without Harry Kane, Daniel Sturridge and Wayne Rooney through injury must have made Southgate’s decision even harder for Walcott to swallow.
At 28, he should be the finished article for England. Instead, the Arsenal forward has to be concerned his hopes of playing in a World Cup are under threat — again. Naturally, Southgate was apologetic and tried to downplay the significance of the situation.
He said: “Theo was the most difficult decision I had to make all week. His form for his club has been good, he’s scored well for them. He’s a player I like and I have told him I’m not ruling him out in the future. But in terms of the wider squad, this is a better opportunity to look at one or two others.”
But after the initial platitudes, the explanation for Walcott’s omission gave the impression Southgate is unconvinced about his qualities.
Walcott has scored 17 times for Arsenal this term but Southgate added: “I don’t think he transferred his early season form into the matches we had in October and November. Theo played in three of the last four games [started against Malta and Slovenia and was a substitute against Spain] and I feel I have a good picture of what he can do.
“With our wide players and the way we have been playing at the moment, we like to get them in between the lines. Theo plays differently, he likes to run in behind defences.
“I didn’t expect him to be pleased and he wasn’t. He [argued his case]. Quite rightly he said ‘I’m one of the leading goal scorers in the League’. I didn’t mind being challenged on that at all but I have to make decisions. I didn’t see him starting the games we have coming up and in terms of the wider squad, I wanted to look at one or two other players.”
One of those ‘other players’ is Southampton’s Nathan Redmond, a similar talent to Walcott in many respects. However he is five years younger and significantly has a strong bond with Southgate from when the latter was in charge of the Under-21s.
Top English goalscorers 2016-17 (all competitions)
Harry Kane: 24
Theo Walcott: 17
Dele Alli: 16
Jermain Defoe: 14
Michail Antonio: 9
Troy Deeney: 9
Andre Gray: 9
Jamie Vardy: 9
Raheem Sterling: 9
Charlie Austin: 9
The Russia World Cup probably represents Walcott’s last chance to ever play on the biggest stage. At 2006, he was the bright young thing that was taken to Germany just for the experience. Four years later he was injured and then Roy Hodgson decided not to take him to Rio three years ago. One look at Walcott’s England statistics shows that after 11 years, he is not in a position to expect any favours. Eight goals in 47 games is not the record of someone whose place should be guaranteed. Completing 90 minutes on just four occasions doesn’t look too good either.
Southgate added: “If players think they’re going to be picked every time, that’s dangerous. You need to be able to come in and perform to stay in.”
Walcott has certainly been warned.