Sven's Big Gamble
Sven-Goran Eriksson has come over all final-term president. The idea is that the commander-in-chief, sentient to the fact that he never again will need to seek re-election, cuts loose in the dying days of his incumbency, seeks to secure his legacy and throws off the careful strategic manouevres of earlier days. So, hello Theo Walcott, Aaron Lennon, and Stewart Downing, farewell Shaun Wright Phillips, Darren Bent, and Ledley King; Jermaine Defoe? The stand-by desk is this way sir. Owen Hargreaves is presumably maintained by Sven as a keepsake from less wild days.
The Swede doth protest too much when referring to his capping of a 17-year old Wayne Rooney in a vital Euro 2004 qualifier against Turkey as evidence of his fondness for a gamble. Rooney, at least, had a full season of Premiership football behind him, and also, importantly had international caps to his name at that stage. Walcott, on the other hand, possesses only 21 starts for Southampton in the Championship, the approval of Arsene Wenger and the benefit of Eriksson's "instinct", as derived from observation of Arsenal training workouts and some video-clip packages.
Eriksson, inhabiting his boldness with surprising ease, has fairly flat-footed English football observers and insiders with this one. Reactions to yesterday's squad announcement ranged from apoplexy (from those within the clubs whose players were spurned in favour of the Arsenal ingenue, particular Darren Bent's Charlton Athletic) to a sense of stunned approval. Many had pointed to Eriksson's famed conservatism and loyalty as suggestion that Wright-Phillips and Bent would be retained, and that the notion of Ledley King's versatility would be too mouth-watering for the Swede to ignore.
The squad announcement painted Sven in entirely new light, as a buccaneering adventurer whose attractiveness for women seemed suddenly more plausible, and has provided the English with a little excited bounce that had dissipated when Rooney's metatarsal's snapped in Chelsea penalty box. For all that people might express surprise at yesterday's squad, everyone loves the idea of the young prodigy taking the world by storm, coming from nowhere - a year out of the Southampton youth team no less! - like a plotline out of a bad schoolboy essay.
Eriksson has earned cautious pats on the back for another reason. When England sleepwalked out of the 2002 World Cup and, upon losing Rooney, could not muster the beating of Portugal in Euro 2004, many bemoaned the Swede's inability to change a game and to seize the day in these clutch situations. By equipping himself, in the almost certain absence of Rooney's explosiveness again, with quick and unpredictable options such as Lennon and Walcott (attributes: speed, balance, trickery) he at least provides his team with backup plans other than the propulsion of Peter Crouch at opposition defences.
But while Walcott amounts to a genuine bolt-from-the-blue risk, a true joker for a situation which England hope will not, but probably will, come about, there is logic and consideration in the rest. As Sven pointed out, Wright-Phillips' (who so recently appeared to have David Beckham's right-midfield berth wrestled from the Real Madrid man's impeccably manicured grasp) problem was not just his lack of first-team football with Chelsea. Had Aaron Lennon not appeared on the scene, the little former Manchester City winger would undoubtedly have made the cut. But Lennon's claim is based on white-hot form, a quality an international manager desires as much as any in his tourament squad.
Bent and Defoe (who would be called up in the absence of Rooney or the still struggling Michael Owen) suffer in comparison to Walcott for a different reason. While the 17-year-old is in because of what he might be able to do, Bent in, particular, and Defoe are out because of what it is known they can do. Eriksson has obviously decided, based on Bent's single friendly appearance against Uruguay, that the Charlton man is not a top international striker. Similarly with Defoe, who has struggled to display the maturity and stature to be Tottenham's main man, never mind England's. So Eriksson's instincts, and the scantiest of evidence, told him Walcott had these qualities.
With Rooney and Owen being brought to Germany on stretchers, and Eriksson rolling the dice further on Walcott - and, to a lesser extent, Lennon - the other metatarsal invalid, Ledley King, was a gamble too far. The manager's soft spot for Owen Hargreaves - who many suspect to possess incriminating photgraphs of Eriksson such is his loyalty to the Bayern Munich player - as a midfield and defensive utility man meant it was pointless to take a chance on King. Ironically, Michael Carrick's advancing claims on a possible holding midfielder role put the kybosh on his Spurs' teammate's possible usefulness.
So there you have it. Once this all dies down we can get back to 24-hour Rooney-watch, but as President Sven faces into the last days of his turbulent regime and the last days of his dealings with his friends in the English press, he will undoubtedly enjoyed yesterday, when he made his bid for posterity.