In the euphorically barmy delusions of upcoming World Cup invincibility — the English never used to be so insanely carried away when their teams even had a real chance of winning the ruddy thing — I was taken by one nicely observant line on how manager Sven-Goran Eriksson’s qualifying syntax invariably hedges the bets with his almost permanent employment of the same three words in the middle of every sentence: ‘…of course, but…’ As in, ‘We shall win the tournament, of course, but you never know because this is football’; or ‘I am perfectly prepared to drop David Beckham, of course, but he is the captain’. Eriksson’s quite implausible and half-baked gamble in picking teenager Theo Walcott for a World Cup continues to defy belief. ‘I have never seen him play, of course, but his father says he is a very good player for his age.’
In 2003 Eriksson picked Wayne Rooney at 17 years 111 days …of course, but …he was already a fully fledged infant prodigy, having set the Mersey on fire with more than a full season in the Premiership. Eriksson picked Walcott, sight unseen, at 17 years and 58 days, and before the man-child had even taken the field as a half-minute substitute in a single Premiership match. With Rooney unfit, to attempt to replace like for like is a crassly ridiculous throw. Or is the demob-happy Swede, by way of riddance and cheerio, just vengefully taking the mickey out of the nation and his Fleet Street baiters? Nothing about the baffling sphinxian surprises most of us.
Not that I’m against boy wonders. I’m old enough to remember that it was the most natural thing when the onliest Duncan Edwards first played for England at 18 in 1955; or Jimmy Greaves ditto four years later. Jim had already on two occasions scored five goals in a single First Division match for Chelsea (against Wolverhampton Wanderers and Preston North End) as well as potting a further six League hat tricks before England got the message. And in 1959, didn’t McWunderkind Denis Law — like Greaves, born in 1940 — once score four in a match for Huddersfield Town and just three days later score another four for Scotland?
At cricket, Brian Close remains England’s youngest player — 18 years and 149 days at Old Trafford in July 1949. Nicely, sitting awestruck on the grass alongside the Warwick Road sightscreen in a heatwave, that was also my own first Test — aged 11 years and 291 days. Close took just one wicket and made a third-ball duck to mark our joint baptism, but long before his remarkable (if irregular) Test span ended all of 27 summers later, the bald old blighter was resolutely in place as one of my all-time favourite cricketers. Browsing in Wisden (as you do) the other day, I came across two Lord’s Test debutants six years ago, both Lancastrian 21-year-olds who, between them, inauspiciously recorded just one solitary run and bowled only three overs. They did scarcely any better in the next Test at Nottingham and both, to sighing jeers all round, were dropped — with Wisden rudely, conclusively, sending them on their way: ‘C Schofield and A Flintoff appear to lack the nous to succeed at the highest level.’
Of course, but…. What fun it would be if, in the next few weeks, the callow footballer Walcott could cheerfully poke us tired old seen-it-all cynics in the eye just as cricketer Flintoff did.