Fastest gun in town

Bumps and bruises are inevitable for such a young talent, especially one that is built for speed as Theo Walcott is. But fans will be hoping that the youngster’s injury woes will soon come to an end and Walcott can unleash himself on the game’s elite sides at the World Cup next summer, writes Robert Meaden.

When Theo Walcott was plucked from teenage obscurity, he had to eschew the traditional worries of a 17-year-old such as learning to drive and instead shoulder the hopes of a nation expectantly heading into a World Cup.

That was the scenario Sven-Goran Eriksson placed the fleet-footed winger in, when he included Walcott in England’s 23-man squad for the 2006 competition in Germany — and seemingly all for one solitary attribute.

“Pace in football today is worth a lot,” the Swede said to justify the shock inclusion.

And it was no surprise that eyebrows were raised. This was a player who had never played a top-flight game, let alone represented his country.

“It is a gamble, of course it is a gamble. I can’t deny that but it is a nice one,” Eriksson added.

But it was a risk that was unfortunately never put to test, as Walcott emerged from England’s wreckage of a World Cup campaign without playing a single minute in the tournament, despite injuries to Michael Owen and Wayne Rooney.

But, Eriksson has long since departed the international scene — at a price — and Walcott has developed at rapid rate as a footballer in the past three years for club and country.

So much so that, injuries permitting, the 20-year-old is surely soon to be handed a World Cup berth at the 2010 finals in South Africa, this time by Fabio Capello.

Walcott was first spotted aged 10 by Phil Cannon, who was then scout at Swindon Town. But the speedy youngster was swiftly snapped up for a small fee by Southampton, which nurtured Walcott’s talent through his early-teenage years.

His debut finally came aged 16 in 2005 in an English Championship game against Wolves.

Walcott cemented his status as one of England’s brightest stars by subsequently making over 20 first-team appearances for the south-coast outfit, scoring four goals in the process.

His lightening pace undoubtedly attracted the attention of the Barclays English Premier League scouts, but it was more than sheer speed that persuaded Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger to pay an initial GBP10 million to secure his signature in January 2006, ahead of rivals Chelsea and Tottenham.

“It was my scout who first alerted me to him,” Wenger reflected recently. “I watched him in one game against Ipswich in the FA Youth Cup final and I liked some things about him and that convinced me. What convinced me was the timing of his runs. That is the first quality — to know when to go and where to go. Sometimes you have players who are super quick but they don’t run at the right moment and they don’t use their asset very well.”

Clearly, the Frenchman was impressed and among a young vibrant squad, Walcott has shown real glimpses of his potential over the past few months, despite frequent spells on the sidelines through injury.

Anybody who saw his assist for Emmanuel Adebayor’s equaliser against Liverpool in the UEFA Champions League quarterfinal in April 2008, or his hat-trick for England in Zagreb against Croatia in September, the same year, can be in no doubt as to the potential Wenger has at his disposal.

Walcott has now made over 65 appearances for Arsenal to supplement his eight England caps.

“The potential is there for him to be the new Henry,” Wenger said. “But do not make him Thierry Henry before he is Thierry Henry. One game is one game, a career is something different. It is consistency. I am convinced it is in him but let it get out and give him time. Don’t set any limitations on any human being because once you have talent the rest is down to how much you want it and to how intelligent you are. You can be very optimistic about Theo. The rest is down to injury and being regularly at the top level.”

Bumps and bruises are inevitable for such a young talent, especially one that is built for speed as Walcott is.

But Arsenal and England fans will be hoping that the youngster’s injury woes will soon come to an end and Walcott can unleash on the game’s elite sides at the World Cup next summer. Only this time, there is a good chance he will get the opportunity to shine.

Being called up for England’s World Cup squad at the age of 17 was hardly a bad thing for Walcott, but Eriksson’s poor handling of the situation heaped a lot of unnecessary pressures on the youngster’s shoulders, and not being given the opportunity to take any part in the competition will have hit his confidence.

Walcott is in a long-term relationship with childhood sweetheart Melanie Slade.

One of Walcott’s first cars was a favourite with many players — the Aston Martin DB9.

Factfile Name: Theo Walcott Position: Winger Club: Arsenal D.O.B.: 16/03/1989 England caps: 8 England goals: 3 England debut: v Hungary 30/05/2006 Moment to remember

The 2008/09 season was a seminal one for Walcott as he finally proved his ability for club and country. The memorable assist for Arsenal against Liverpool was superb, but an international hat-trick — against a talented side such as Croatia — will be difficult to top.

Moment to forget

After being selected for Capello’s senior squad this summer, Walcott was also selected for England’s Under-21 UEFA European Championship campaign against Wenger’s wishes — and the young star promptly picked up another injury to add to Wenger’s frustration.

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