Young Walcott's speed trap
THERE is no player in any league who does not fear this.
It is World Cup year, and, by virtue of his innate speed on the wing or in the central striking role, Theo Walcott was regarded as a virtual certainty to represent England at that tournament.
Two games into the New Year, he was at the top of his form. He had scored, he had destroyed opponents and he was just getting up to speed after a two-month layoff following surgery to repair a torn muscle in his abdomen.
Then he did as forwards these days are required to do. He chased back into defence and attempted a tackle on Tottenham Hotspur's Danny Rose. If there was contact, it was minimal. Walcott attempted to put the brakes on, to check his tackle. He grimaced, fell and lay in a heap.
That was Saturday afternoon. On Monday came the diagnosis that devastated him and Arsenal.
He had ruptured the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee. He is out for the rest of this season. He misses Arsenal's challenge in the Premier League, the FA Cup and the Champions League. And he is almost certainly out of the World Cup in Brazil this June and July.
The anterior cruciate ligament is intrinsic to the balance of the knee joint. It connects bone to bone; its tissue is irreparable, and has to be replaced either by a graft of sinews from the athlete's own body or by transplanted tissue.
There is no shortcut back to action. Walcott is 24, and his greatest asset is speed.
His swiftness can appear to be a corollary of sports that quick muscles are vulnerable muscles. If there is one former English player who was as fast with the ball as Walcott, it was surely Trevor Francis.
Francis, like Walcott, was a teenage wonder - indeed, he was destined to become the first man in the world to be traded for a million-pound transfer fee when Birmingham City sold him to Nottingham Forest in February 1979.
At that time, Francis and I were working on a book, The Anatomy Of A £1 Million Player.
The clue was in the title. Researching the book, we learnt from a surgeon who operated on Francis' knee in 1974 that the gift he had of moving quicker than almost any opponent came with an inbuilt handicap.
The surgeon described the operation as akin to stitching together the strands of a horse's tail. This particular player had quick-twitch fibres and a high level of serum uric acid in his blood.
The sinews were fuelled to move fast. The faster the movement, the more vulnerable the tissue. No opponent had caused a tendon behind the knee of Francis to splinter, and nothing could prevent him from further tears, including a snapped Achilles' tendon later in his career.
Francis did come back. He moved from Nottingham to Manchester City and later to Sampdoria in Italy.
Walcott may or may not go that way in his career. Arsenal purchased him in his early teens from Southampton, and England took him to the 2006 World Cup when he was 17 - before he had even played in the Premier League.
But he sat out that World Cup on the bench. He wasn't selected for the next World Cup in 2010, but, having scored a memorable hat-trick for England in one game against Croatia, his name was as good as pencilled in to go to Brazil this year.
The only thing that could have held him back were the injuries. He has had recurring shoulder dislocations, and he has suffered back, knee and hamstring strains, in addition to an ankle injury and the abdominal tear.
His own extraordinary acceleration was a threat to his body's ability to take the strain. His temperament, like Francis', was resilient enough to take the strains and the pains and keep bouncing back.
But the athlete cannot cheat time. Healing has to take its course. Thereby hangs the precautionary tale: Without the speed, you are not effective on the wings in the modern game.
With the speed, teenagers get fast-tracked. The teens are growing years for the human anatomy. But even with modern medical science, the breaking point might be built into the rush to play too soon, in too many competitions.