From the publishers of THE HINDU

VOL.33 :: NO.36 :: Sep. 09, 2010

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FOOTBALL / KICKING AROUND

All About Walcott, Bellamy and Cole

Despite the three proving themselves time and again, the pundits are always gunning for their heads on frivolous issues, writes Brian Glanville.

After Arsenal's Theo Walcott recently scored three goals against poor 10-man overwhelmed Blackpool at the Emirates, showing irresistible speed and control, you might have thought his constant critics would have left him alone and conceded that he is a tremendous talent. But it didn't happen there that Saturday night. On BBC Television was Alan Hansen once of Liverpool and Scotland an implacable pundit who on this occasion did seem to be tying himself in knots as Walcott had done to the hapless Blackpool left-back.

On the one hand Hansen was eulogising the performance of Walcott on the Gunners' right wing, admitting that he was pretty much unplayable yet he also struck up the tired old theme, first declared by the former England right-winger Chris Waddle, he who missed a vital penalty when England lost on spot-kicks to Germany in the World Cup semifinal, that Walcott doesn't have “a football brain”.

To which the manifest answer is, does it matter? While Hansen admitted that Walcott had destroyed the Blackpool defence, he could not resist adding that while dazzling in the heat of the conflict, it was a different and wholly less impressive matter when Walcott found himself with time to think. It was then according to Hansen that Walcott would make wrong decisions.

My mind went back to the greatest Blackpool outside right of them all, to none other than the legendary Stanley Matthews alias the “Wizard of Dribble”. The possessor of an amazing body swerve which deceived opposing full-backs and left-backs till he was 50. “Don't ask me how I do it” he once said, “It just comes out of me under pressure.” By sheer supreme instinct.

Yet even after he had demolished Blackpool, Walcott's shrewd French manger Arsene Wenger was saying that he felt Theo's ideal eventual position was as a striker. Yet surely such electric pace is best used on the wing.

For Walcott still so young, last season was blighted by injury. But this has been a curious switchback of a career. Arsenal bought him for a huge fee as a teenager from Southampton but they never gave him a first team game though he did have one for England. Despite his inexperience even Sven Goran Eriksson picked him for the England World Cup squad for 2006 ahead of far more obvious candidates and then did not give him a game thereby wasting a place in the squad.

His apotheosis would come under Capello in Zagreb in a 2010 thrashing of Croatia where England had foundered in the previous European eliminators. Walcott scored a glorious hat-trick on one of his irritable days. Much later in the season playing for Arsenal against Liverpool at Anfield in a European Cup tie he produced an astonishing 80-yard solo run which resulted in a goal. If he can do things like these, why bother about a so called football brain? How many forwards who supposedly have one can do what he does? And if people keep harrying him about his supposed brainlessness would there not be a danger that he might lose his natural flair and virtuosity?

Craig Bellamy is a very different case thought both he and Theo are what you might call classical outside rights. How bizarre to remember that not so long ago the word among many coaches and managers was that wingers no longer existed. Bellamy for whom an apt word might be bellicose has just been shipped out of Manchester City to the so called Championship club Cardiff City, actually the place of his birth. Given Bellamy's status as one of the finest attackers of his time, wonderfully quick and elusive and surely the owner of a football brain into the bargain, he had an excellent goal scoring and making record previous season at Manchester City but his relations with their Italian Manager Roberto Mancini were poisonous, type of training being a big bone of contention. So flying in the face of logic, Mancini dropped Bellamy from his Europa Cup squad and offered him on loan if not actually for sale.

With one Grim Proviso: That he could not join a rival top division club. That meant no transfer to the likes of Spurs and an eventual move well down the scale to Cardiff. Irony of Ironies. Though Bellamy insisted he was delighted by the move, I well recall interviewing him some years ago and asking him why he didn't join Cardiff City as a youngster. To which he replied that it was not the kind of club he wanted to play for.

He was singing a very different kind of song after his Cardiff debut, helping them to a 4-0 home win against Doncaster, smashing in the last goal himself from a free-kick. And of course he will go on playing for his beloved Wales. After this debut he told us how happy he was to be playing for his local club just 10 minutes away from his home. Yet it does seem a little like Pavarotti dining in a pub.

Bellamy for all his talents has long been something of a stormy petrel as evidenced by the number of clubs for which he has played, Newcastle, Celtic, West Ham and Liverpool being among them. It still baffles me that when Liverpool reached their second European Cup final against an ageing Milan defence, Bellamy did not even get off the sub bench. Another of those frequent strange decisions by manager Rafa Benitez, who has now for no evident reason been installed as the new manager of Inter Milan.

Mancini, however, can revel in his Manchester City team's significant 2-0 home win over Liverpool without not only Bellamy but the explosive 20-year-old Italian striker Mario Balotelli, still recovering from injury after an excellent debut in Romania. But such was the brilliance of Argentina's Carlos Tevez who scored both the City goals that neither absentee was missed.

Missing from the Liverpool team, however, was Joe Cole, suspended for three games after a rash and untypical challenge against Arsenal at Anfield. For reasons best or worst known to Fabio Capello, Joe wasn't even included in the England squad for the Hungary game at Wembley. Yet almost certainly Liverpool's two famous local veterans Steven Gerrard and Jamie Carragher, never the most effusive of men were untypically praising Cole to the skies.

Gerrard marvelled at his ball control, saying he could do things with a golf ball that other players could not do with a football. While Carragher spoke of the way Cole controlled the game, now being used in a central midfield role rather than on the wings where he largely figured with Chelsea whom he's left on a free transfer.

Has Cole been shabbily victimised by Capello for daring publicly to criticise his World Cup tactics? It looks ominous.



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