It was predicted but still managed to come as a surprise. England coach Sven-Goran Eriksson has gone ahead and chosen 17-year-old Theo Walcott in his provisional list of 23 for this summer’s World Cup in Germany.
The young striker’s inclusion in the squad is a measure of England’s desperation when it comes to its attacking force. With both Michael Owen and Wayne Rooney still unfit - and in Rooney’s case unlikely to appear in Germany - Eriksson has chosen a player who is not only uncapped for England but also is yet to make a Premiership appearance for his club Arsenal.
“I know it’s a gamble,” said Eriksson, “but it’s a nice one”. He admitted he had only made up his mind on Monday morning and had conferred on the matter with Arsenal coach Arsene Wenger.
As for other surprises, the biggest was the exclusion of Tottenham Hotspur’s Ledley King who seemed as certain as anyone to be a squad member early in the season. Like captain David Beckham before the 2002 World Cup and now Rooney, King has been hit by an injured metatarsal.
The key is Eriksson’s view of King as principally a central defender and that - with John Terry, Rio Ferdinand and Sol Campbell selected - England is well-covered in this area of the field. However, many also see King as a midfield player who it would have been worth taking along for his utility value had he had the chance to recover over the coming weeks.
Apart from his gamble on Walcott, Eriksson has given a chance to Aaron Lennon, Tottenham’s pacey right winger. On the left of midfield Stewart Downing of Middlesbrough steps up when many had expected him to be among Eriksson’s standby four.
Capped once before, Downing gives the squad more balance than England fans may have been used to in the past given that it is relatively well-represented by players not reluctant to use their left feet. Ashley Cole of Arsenal appears to have recovered from a season dogged by injury, while Wayne Bridge wins his place as someone who can double at left back and as an attacking midfielder.
Upfront Liverpool’s Peter Crouch is included in the squad, where Jermaine Defoe of Spurs isn’t, almost certainly because of their contrasting heights. Eriksson is of the belief that Crouch’s towering presence at the end of crosses will strike fear into many an international side’s defence, even if it only occasionally does so in the Premiership.
For all the injury doubts hanging over Rooney and Owen, England’s most conspicuous weakness lies in its goalkeeping, once an area of traditional strength. First choice Paul Robinson has proved himself competent rather than, as yet, world class, while his understudy David James is still apt to cause his own defence heart palpitations on the high ball. Third-string Robert Green plays his football outside the Premiership with Norwich City.
Nostalgists will note the return to the same squad of Michael Carrick of Spurs and Chelsea’s Frank Lampard and Joe Cole, a few seasons ago the ‘holy trinity’ of the West Ham United midfield. All West Ham and England fans of a certain age will recall the roles played by Bobby Moore, Martin Peters and Geoff Hurst in England’s one and only World Cup triumph now precisely 40 years ago.
Provisional squad: Paul Robinson (Tottenham), David James (Man City), Robert Green (Norwich); Gary Neville, Rio Ferdinand (both Man United), John Terry (Chelsea), Ashley Cole , Sol Campbell (both Arsenal), Jamie Carragher (Liverpool), Wayne Bridge (Chelsea); David Beckham (Real Madrid), Michael Carrick (Tottenham), Frank Lampard (Chelsea), Steven Gerrard (Liverpool), Owen Hargreaves (Bayern Munich), Jermaine Jenas (Tottenham), Stewart Downing (Middlesbrough), Joe Cole (Chelsea), Aaron Lennon (Tottenham); Wayne Rooney (Man United), Michael Owen (Newcastle), Peter Crouch (Liverpool), Theo Walcott (Arsenal).
Standby: Scott Carson (Liverpool), Luke Young (Charlton), Nigel Reo-Coker (West Ham), Jermain Defoe (Tottenham), Andy Johnson (Crystal Palace).