I distinctly remember the feature in The Sun. Across the page was a headline about Arsenal’s future, with three pictures of players underneath. “The new Vieira, the new Kanu and the new Henry,” the piece proudly said, along with each of the price tags the club was set to pay per player.
Emmanuel Adebayor of course has long since gone, going on to no greater things. Abou Diaby suffered miserably, potential wasted thanks to his brittle body. Theo Walcott however, has stayed and stayed long, to the point now where he is (or was, depending when you read this) our longest serving player.
Since that newspaper article I’ve always taken great interest in Walcott. Firstly, him being labelled as the ‘new Henry’ was a big deal to me. Henry was my idol at 16 years old, so whoever was set to replace him was always going to pique my interest. My other reason for being so keen to track his progress was the fact he’s just three weeks older than me – someone I could kind of relate to actually living my dream.
Though Walcott signed in the January of 06, it felt like an age before he appeared for Arsenal, despite being a surprise inclusion of that summer’s World Cup squad. Looking back at pictures of him in that first Emirates year he looks so ridiculously young; number 32 on his back in a shirt which looks far too big.
We had to wait until the following February for his first goal and, in what was to become pretty typical, it came in a big game. The opener against Chelsea in the League Cup final – a final which Wenger played with a very youthful team – was the perfect first goal despite how long we’d waited. Unfortunately we’d go on to be Drogba’d as was standard in those days, but Walcott’s Thierry-like finish that afternoon in Cardiff was a hopeful nod to the future.
Over the course of the next ten years, Walcott would go on to divide opinion like almost no other – possibly only Olivier Giroud could rival him in that regard! Neither he nor Arsene Wenger could decide whether he was a centre forward, a wide forward or just a winger, and the truth is he’s never truly found his proper role in the side.
But I’d prefer not to focus on the negatives, for this is a thank you piece to a player who I’ve admired, if not quite loved, throughout his Gunners career. As I said, I’ve always felt I could relate to him, and it’s a shame that it’s never really happened for him, because there have been many glimpses.
In the years that followed, we saw him battle back from a couple of really bad injuries to continually score goals and make the difference in games. Chelsea were often on the receiving end, but Spurs were one of his favourite opponents too. In Europe, he performed and made important contributions against Barcelona, Bayern Munich and even Liverpool, to name three memories which stick out.
For someone sprung into the limelight so young, Walcott couldn’t be a less controversial figure. He’s been a model professional for Arsenal, always spoken excellently and politely, and a large part of me is tinged with sadness that he didn’t go on to be the club legend I’d hoped he would, merely because such professionalism deserves success.
When I look back, I think the 2015 FA Cup Final will be my happiest memory of Walcott. After missing almost the entirety of 2014 with injury, he reestablished himself towards the end of the 14/15 campaign. With a goal at Old Trafford and then three at home to West Brom, he convinced Wenger to start him at Wembley.
Ultimately the final turned into a very one-sided affair – although I’m not complaining – but a large key to that was Walcott. A cagey first half was coming to a close when he struck, sweetly firing home an unstoppable volley with his weaker left peg.
His celebration was one of beauty – fists clenched, screaming loudly as his yellow shirt wheeled away. It was an important moment for the team, but even more so for him I think. As the centre forward for a cup final team, this was his big moment.
In the couple of years since he’s slipped down the pecking order, and away at Palace last season was probably his personal nadir. I was in the crowd at Selhurst Park for an abysmal performance and despite leaving early (the one and only time I ever have or will), I missed the interview where he conceded that, though captain for the night, our opponents had merely ‘wanted it more’.
He’s been on the fringes ever since, but not once has he complained, with his behaviour and attitude remaining impeccable, as we’ve come to take for granted.
I’m of firm belief that Walcott can go on to become an important player for Everton, although as he loses his pace he may well struggle. When all is said and done however, it’s impossible not to simply say thanks for the memories and wish him all the best. You can’t help but feel his departure is also a nod to a future without Wenger, a change many are coming to accept as necessary so that we can all move on.
So all in all, thanks Theo. You lived the dream for me – I just wish we were both 16 again!