Walcott fires the perfect answer to his critics

HERE s one of football s little ironies. Theo Walcott, he of no footballing brain fame, taken to a World Cup when he shouldn t have gone, then discarded from one to which he SHOULD have gone, humiliated in front of the nation, then surely delighted not

HERE's one of football's little ironies. Theo Walcott, he of "no footballing brain" fame, taken to a World Cup when he shouldn't have gone, then discarded from one to which he SHOULD have gone, humiliated in front of the nation, then surely delighted not to have been part of a much greater humiliation in South Africa some weeks later, is likely to make English football history tomorrow night.

And here's why.

If, as expected, the resurgent Arsenal winger - or is it striker, these days? - who has plundered four goals in his last two Premier League games, an efficient hat trick against Blackpool and an expert finish at Blackburn last weekend, plays for his country against Bulgaria at Wembley and the Three Lions, as expected, win, Walcott will set a new record the likes of Matthews, Moore and Beckham never got anywhere near.

He will become the first player in The FA's history to win his first 13 internationals, which is an impressive stat whichever way his critics would want to dissect, discuss and disparage.

Walcott's role in the 2-1 friendly victory over Hungary last month saw him equal a 99-year record set by Derby County half back Ben Warren, who was a winner for his first 12 caps.

It may not be the greatest achievement to throw back at dissenting voices, but it sums up the Berkshire-born starlet's scintillating start to the season.

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After all, it had been a wretched summer for both Walcott, discarded unceremoniously as he was virtually boarding the plan for Rustenburg, and his international team-mates unfortunate enough to make the flight.

But Walcott's initial predicament has, as his club manager Arsene Wenger predicted back in June, been to Arsenal's gain.

The player himself, one of football's most affable and humble individuals, took Fabio Capello's decision firmly on the chin.

"I just looked at myself after I was left out of the World Cup squad - I had a very good pre-season and a nice break over the summer," the eloquent 21-year-old explained this week.

"Of course I was angry. You want to play in the biggest competitions in the world. You want to play against the best. And you want to play for England. But I couldn't point fingers at anyone.

"I had to blame myself and make sure it didn't happen again because the form wasn't there at the end of the season.

"Now I've got to train well and work hard to get in the team on Friday night. The manager (Fabio Capello) has got faith in me, it's nice to be back in the squad and back with my mates."

But his critics stills lurk, notably BBC pundit Alan Hansen, who last week put the boot in despite watching him score that treble against Blackpool, accusing him of "not having a footballing brain".

Walcott again shrugged it off: "Everyone is entitled to their opinion but the people I listen to are the boss, Mr Capello, the players and my family.

"They are the most important people in my career. I sit on my own watching Match Of The Day, watching the goals go in, then I go off and make myself a cup of tea."

But there are still many more who believe Walcott's progress has, at best, been truncated.

One former Arsenal player I spoke to this week, who shall remain nameless but weighed in with a fair few goals for the club many moons ago, concurred with Hansen's criticism.

"The fact is," he told me, "Walcott has barely progressed in nearly five years at the club. That's not being harsh, that's just there for all to see.

"He still doesn't make the right runs, he still looks lost for long periods during games and he still doesn't impose himself on a game when he should do with the pace he has at his disposal."

And there's others, formerly of red and white, who feel the same, he told me.

Perry Groves and Ian Wright, though, clearly don't.

Last week they formed an impassioned defence of the 'Newbury Express' following Hansen's criticism.

Wright said Hansen would never have lived with Walcott's pace while Groves accused the Scot of being "insulting".

Even the Premier League master of the art of scoring, Alan Shearer, looked decidedly twitchy on the Match of the Day sofa sitting next to the former Liverpool defender this week, clearly irritated with Hansen's words.

"He (Walcott) is only 21 - people seem to forget that," sniffed the Newcastle legend in Hansen's direction.

Two years ago Walcott was the toast of the nation after a sensational hat-trick in Croatia. Since then injuries and form have raised old questions.

Walcott remains far from the finished article; his technique lets him down badly at times, he still makes mystifying runs into nowhere-in-particular, while remaining infuriatingly static on other occasions, and, while we're getting it all out in the open, his finishing needs working on.

But his positives, for the first time since arriving from Southampton back in January 2006 in the same week as Emmanuel Adebayor, are finally outweighing the negatives.

He appears to have finally stepped up to 'the plate' - a demand from many Arsenal fans in the past couple of seasons.

Serious shoulder problems - on both left and right - have finally been rectified after corrective surgery, and his confidence is blossoming.

He has also bulked up impressively - although not to the extent of his professional bodybuilder sister Hollie - allowing him to hold off even the more robust tackles that inevitably come his way and will continue to do so.

But, most importantly, he is beginning to contribute significantly with goals and assists.

As Shearer pointed out last weekend, after analysing his performance at Ewood Park, Walcott is also becoming far more wily when it comes to peeling off defenders and creating space for himself - a clear sign those extra summer hours spent on the training ground at London Colney ARE paying off.

Adebayor came and went, beginning with a flurry of goals and ending in disgraceful apathy.

Walcott remains the present and the future for Arsenal - and possibly England.

Who would most Arsenal fans rather have in their team now?

Well, it's a no-brainer ...