Euro 2012: Arsenal star is gunning for France in England opener
Theo Walcott knows he may have to settle for place on the bench in Donetsk, but is raring to go
The last time England prepared to begin a major tournament, Theo Walcott was nowhere to be seen.
Two years ago, the Arsenal midfielder was still reeling from what he has since described as the worst moment of his football career, being axed from Fabio Capello’s squad for the 2010 World Cup.
The player whose sensational hat-trick in Croatia had set England on the path to the finals had been jettisoned at the last moment, and the pain for the then 21-year-old Walcott was raw.
Two years on, Capello is the one who is missing the tournament, while Walcott is preparing for England’s opening Group D game against France.
And while the Arsenal midfielder is not guaranteed to start in Donetsk, he is feeling upbeat about the Three Lions’ chances under Roy Hodgson after the two friendly victories since the former West Bromwich Albion boss took the reins.
“If you go the whole tournament winning 1-0 I’m sure no-one will complain about that,” said Walcott. “We are getting used to the way that Roy wants the team to set up and play. It’s a positive going into the tournament,” added the 23-year-old who knows that, like his Arsenal team-mate Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, he may have to settle for a place on the bench against the French.
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“We are a team playing without any fear and when players come off the bench they want to grab that opportunity. I’ve had the hamstring problem at the end of the season and I’m starting to ease my way back into it now. I’m training hard and I feel great. Hopefully I can show a bit more of that in a starting role.”
A spate of injuries, combined with the two-game suspension for Wayne Rooney, give Walcott a better chance of being involved than looked likely when he struggled with injury at the end of last season.
He proved his fitness in time to be selected, but now the likes of Gareth Barry and Frank Lampard have been ruled out of the tournament, Walcott’s 24 caps and six years at this level make him a little more than one of the kids and pushing for a starting role – a fact that is uppermost in his mind.
“Everyone’s role is up for grabs,” added Walcott. “There is always competition in any team. You have to train well and when you are given the opportunity you have to take it.
“If you come off the bench it’s what you do on the pitch that matters, [but] going to a tournament is not just about individual players. It’s about the team. With the team and the quality we have in that dressing room we can go far if we all just trust each other.
“Wayne is a very important player to the team. He has a two match ban but the players that we have play in the best league in the world as well.
“It’s not a hard task for anyone who comes into Wayne’s role. You never know, they may keep Wayne out of the team if they do well in the first two games.”
Plenty of comparisons have been made between Oxlade-Chamberlain’s selection as an 18-year-old for this tournament, and the inclusion of a 17-year-old Walcott by Sven Goran Eriksson for the 2006 World Cup. Walcott did not figure for England in Germany that summer, but any notion that Oxlade-Chamberlain is just along for the ride in Poland and Ukraine was immediately dismissed by Walcott.
“Alex is the sort of person you don’t have to [give advice to],” Walcott said. “He’s a young man, likes to play with no fear, very confident. If there are people who haven’t heard about him before the tournament, they will hear about him afterwards. I’m sure about that.”
It is almost four years since Walcott scored that hat-trick in Zagreb, strikes that remain his only goals in an England shirt, and it is six years since he was first picked by Eriksson.
Oxlade-Chamberlain having an impact would be a bonus for England and for Arsenal, but for Walcott it is perhaps a little overdue.
He has just enjoyed his best season for the Gunners and now England expects in the hope that the one-time boy wonder can finally deliver.