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By ESPN Staff

Walcott progress pleases Pearce for U21s

Theo Walcott returns to Southampton tonight - and England Under-21 coach Stuart Pearce believes the youngster can feel proud of his development since leaving St Mary's two years ago.

Walcott was taken to the World Cup five months after his move to Arsenal, was famously unused and has not established himself as a regular for his club, yet Pearce has still seen plenty of progress.

Pearce takes into account Walcott's age, 18, as well as the competition at the Emirates Stadium and the way he has performed for the Under-21s.

'He's learning and developing the game,' said Pearce.

'Yes, we want to see him play a touch more but the bottom line is it's all part of the development for him.

'I don't see it that he's dropped back at all this season. He's started every match for me in the under-21s, which is a bonus. On top of that, he's started quite a few games for Arsenal.

'I know full well if you take Theo out of Arsenal and put him in a lesser side somewhere, he'll start every week. But he's playing for one of the top sides in the world so he's not going to start every week.'

Pearce has the utmost confidence in Gunners boss Arsene Wenger knowing whether it is right for Walcott to go on loan in the lower leagues.

'Without a doubt it (going on loan) helps,' said Pearce.

'It all adds to their experience. If they're not playing at their individual clubs, maybe that might be a route they take.

'That applies to anybody. But there's one man who will know what's best for Theo and that's Arsene.'

Pearce's youngsters will be almost certain of a play-off to the reach the 2009 European Championships if they defeat Republic of Ireland tonight.

Walcott is likely to lead the attack as Gabriel Agbonlahor was promoted to the seniors before he was struck by injury, and Matt Derbyshire is absent for family reasons.

Aaron Lennon is set for his first under-21 cap since earning a call-up to the seniors in the build-up to the last World Cup.

Tottenham team-mate Tom Huddlestone said: 'Obviously, he's been up there and done well and it's disappointing for him but he's in this squad and the best thing he can do is go out and be the best player on the pitch.'

Huddlestone feels fitter under Juande Ramos' regime at Spurs and has shed weight since the Spaniard's arrival in October.

'The first thing the manager said when he came in was that he didn't think we were fit enough as a squad,' he added.

'We don't get many days off, and I think that's shown in our performances recently.'