Jim White

Summer holiday for Theo and Joe?

Jim White

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Anything can happen between now and June 12th when England play USA in Rustenburg.

John Terry could meet Carlos Tevez and his mates down a dark alley; David James could lose all his strength, Samson-like, after an altercation with his barber; Owen Hargreaves could discover a new pair of knees.

But one thing can be certain: would the tournament kick off next week it would do so without two players who, a year ago, seemed nailed-on certainties for inclusion. The brief, fitful appearance by Theo Walcott and the complete absence of Joe Cole on Wednesday night does not augur well for either player's chances of making it to South Africa.

How things have changed. Hargreaves apart, Cole was England's best performer at the 2006 tournament, a vibrant, intelligent midfielder, who both helped fill the perpetual hole on the left side of the midfield and provided a goal-scoring threat from behind the strikers. He had skill in abundance and at times looked as if he might emerge as a proper number ten, England's Francesco Totti. Injury robbed him of the chance to seal his place.

And worse, in his absence, Fabio Capello found another way to solve the left sided problem, which neatly also resolved the conundrum of how to accommodate both Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard. Lampard stayed central, Gerrard nominally started on the left, frequently moving inside, swapping positions with Wayne Rooney, hovering behind the main strikers. In short, Gerrard took over Cole's role. And from the moment he proved comfortable there, there really wasn't an argument.

Plus the emergence of James Milner as an England super-sub, capable of filling in wherever is necessary and providing a surge of last-quarter energy, has effectively robbed Cole even of that position.

It hasn't helped him either that his club manager seems to regard him as surplus to requirements, putting him at the back of a long list of midfielders, so far down the pecking order, he is even behind Deco. From shoo-in to someone who it would be hard even to shoe-horn in, it is a rapid fall that has afflicted the poor Chelsea man.

If anything, though, Walcott's diminution has been even more unexpected. When he scored a hat-trick against Croatia in November 2008, he appeared to be announcing himself as a world class forward.

For a moment, Sven Goran Eriksson's decision to take him to the World Cup finals as an untried 17 year old in 2006 looked like the judgment of Solomon. Any man who makes Sven appear to know what he is doing must be good, we thought as Walcott terrorised the Croats. Lightning quick, brave, lethal with the finish, in that moment he really did look like an heir to Thierry Henry. But since then: not a lot.

Walcott made an appearance at a north London school the other week, opening a new artificial football pitch. He was ambassadorial, charming, exactly the kind of role model football needs. He was unfailingly, smilingly polite too, even when one of the kids asked him why on earth he thought he had a chance of going to South Africa when everyone knows that Aaron Lennon's miles better. It was Tottenham territory, so there might have been some bias in the inquiry. But even so, two years ago, not even the most dyed-in-the-wool Spurs fan would have made such a suggestion. Now, it is common currency: Lennon would obviously be the better option.

Injury seems to have stalled Walcott's development. Though his cause might have been helped had Lampard finished off his bright little cut-back in the early exchanges on Wednesday, far from exhibiting Henry's guile, most of the time when he plays he looks one-dimensional.

The consensus is that he has not trained on. Which is odd given, who he plays for. But then Arsene Wenger too appears to be losing patience. And, as he grows into a man, the teenager who looked as if he had everything increasingly looks like the new David Bentley.

Back in 2006, most observers felt that England's 2010 squad would centre around Rooney, Hargreaves, Walcott and the two Coles, Joe And Ashley. Now, only Rooney of that quintet looks certain to travel to South Africa. And we'd better cross every known digit in the hope that he - the one unequivocal genius in the side - does not meet unforeseen circumstances between now and then.

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