Theo, the exception

THEO WALCOTT'S (right, in action during England B's recent friendly against Belarus) selection was a piece of desperate show boating by Sven-Goran Eriksson.-AP THEO WALCOTT'S (right, in action during England B's recent friendly against Belarus) selection was a piece of desperate show boating by Sven-Goran Eriksson.

Ideally, youth should always, within reason, be given its fling. But a TEENAGER should not be pitched into a World Cup team after months without a first-team game of any kind along the lines of what happened to Theo Walcott.

When is a footballer too young to be deployed? Or should one simply abide by the adage, if he's good enough, he's old enough? The question is raised by the sudden, surprising choice for the England World Cup squad of 17-year-old Theo Walcott, a hugely expensive transfer who may eventually cost Arsenal �12 million, yet one who since his arrival from Southampton has not played a single first-team game for them. But when the Gunners' manager Arsene Wenger, in a bizarre moment, suddenly recommended him to the England manager, Sven-Goran Eriksson, the Swede instantly embraced the idea and Walcott, a forward of huge promise, great pace and precocious technique, was duly picked for the English squad.

To me at the time — and I was not alone — it seemed a sheer piece of desperate show boating by Eriksson, bordering on the irresponsible. And in due course that hero of the English game, Bobby Charlton, fired a fusillade at Eriksson, maintaining that this was unfair to Walcott, whose career, as I had felt myself, could easily be sabotaged by such early exposure.

One of the silliest responses to Walcott's unexpected choice — ahead of such full international strikers as Tottenham's Jermaine Defoe — was that Pele had been only 17 when he played so sensationally for Brazil in the 1958 World Cup finals in Sweden, scoring three goals in the semifinal, another two gems in the Final. There was also talk that Pele had not been known before that tournament began.

Not been known? What utter nonsense! Pele had, in fact, been playing for Brazil since he was 16 and for his club, Santos, even earlier. I remember being told by a leading Brazilian journalist, as we watched his team's training in the Ullevi Stadij, Gothenburg, where he would make his World Cup debut, that Pele was a phenomenal talent. True, the nitwit psychologist who accompanied the team and was contemptuously marginalised by Vicente Feola, the manager, gave his fatuous opinion that Pele was too immature to play. But all the signs were already there, that he had not only colossal talents but supremely precocious maturity.

It can, indeed, be as great a mistake to exclude a player on the grounds of his youth as it is to play him before he is ready. I remember the preliminaries to the 1978 World Cup, held in Brazil, when to general surprise Cesar `El Flaco' Menotti, the Argentine manager who had been Diego Maradona's mentor, excluded him from the squad because, despite his amazing precocity, he believed that at 17, Diego was still too young to play. In the event, Alonso, who filled the inside-left position, did well enough, but in retrospect it still seems strange that Menotti should not even choose Maradona as a squad member. Each such case, of course, has to be taken on its own merits, and going far back in time, one finds that of Arsenal's Cliff `Boy' Bastin, who acquired the nickname when in his first season, 1929-30, he broke into the Arsenal team at the age of 17. Indeed, when he arrived from Exeter — where he had been playing since the age of 15 for the local 3rd division club and would have been perfectly and typically happy to stay there — the commissioner on Arsenal's front entrance didn't want to let him in, telling him patronisingly that, one day, he might be good enough to play for Arsenal. Converted from inside forward to outside left, Cliff would establish a goal-scoring aggregate, which was overtaken only after 50 years by Ian Wright. And Wright was a centre forward, not a winger; a position from which, in one remarkable season, Cliff scored no fewer than 33 goals.

But Cliff, in the vernacular, was temperamentally a one off; encased you might say in a cocoon of self-sufficiency. Nothing much seemed to excite him, either on or off the field. To gauge the respect in which he was held throughout European football, one has only to recall a conversation between Hugo Meisl, supremo of Austria's so-called Wunderteam, and his journalist brother, Willy, on the event of the 1934 World Cup. Austria's team said Hugo was too tired to win it, but if he could have just one player, then they could. That player was Cliff Bastin. He had won every possible honour in the game by the time he was 19. As against that, however, he had lost much of his exceptional pace when war broke out and `official' soccer was suspended in 1939, and he was still only 34 when, increasingly afflicted by deafness, he retried from the game.

Could it have been that, peaking so early, Bastin was condemned to fade earlier than most? I watched him many times during the War, when, usually at inside-left, he still looked an accomplished, intelligent and influential player, but on the very few occasions when he was put on the wing — not least absurdly when the Gunners played their first League match since 1939 at Wolverhamption losing 6-l — he had no essential change of pace.

George Best was another who excelled as early as 17, and was still looking good till, in his middle twenties, his undisciplined, self-indulgent lifestyle caused him to gain too much weight. But from his first appearances on the wings in Manchester United's league team, he showed supreme confidence in his own prolific abilities. And so far as early opportunity was concerned, he was emphatically with the right club, the so-called `Busby's Babes', famous for their manager, Matt Busby's readiness to deploy teenagers. "If you don't put them in," he once logically told me, "you can't know what you've got."

What he had, back in the 1950s, was another astonishing 17-year-old in the powerfully built left half Duncan Edwards who had tremendous presence and a deadly left foot. He was doomed, alas, to die after the appalling Munich Air Disaster of 1958. Fast forward to the World Cup finals of 1982, and you find a Manchester United attacker still younger, at 17, than was Pele in Sweden in 1958 — the sturdy Norman Whiteside, playing for Northern Ireland with supreme self confidence. How well I still remember watching him play at the Atletico Madrid stadium, where a burly Austrian defender, clearly hoping to intimidate him, knocked him down. A few minutes later, that Austrian was flat on his back, dumped there by Whiteside.

Ideally, youth should always, within reason, be given its fling. Note however that none of the players I have mentioned was pitched into an international team after months without a league game or a first-team game of any kind; like Theo Walcott. Bobby Charlton is right; and he himself was a teenaged star at Manchester United.