Theo Walcott could never come out of the shadows of the number 14 jersey at Arsenal and expectations to emulate his predecessor.
Perspective is a funny thing, and those making real-time decisions never have its luxury. But even without its probing lens, it was safe to say that 2006 marked a landmark year of sorts for Arsenal Football Club, if only because of the end of an era and the start of a new one.
Their last trophy had been the FA Cup in 2005, the ten-game clean sheet run leading up to the Champions League final versus Barcelona hadn’t been short on quality, and there was a good mix of youth and experience. What people didn’t know then was that the club were embarking upon a period of nine trophy-less seasons. Highbury was history, and with the new stadium debts to pay off and the Invincibles melting away, Cesc Fabregas had already been introduced as a future Viera replacement, while Gael Clichy served as Ashley Cole’s understudy, and there was also Robin van Persie.
The fact that 16-year-old Theo Walcott helped create the first goal to set the Emirates Years rolling was significant. Signed from Southampton in January 2006 for a world-record fee, he was projected to be one of the pillars of this new team despite playing only 12 games at the senior level. One of the top three finalists for the 2005 BBC Young Sports Personality of the Year, Theo had got a lucky ticket to Germany with the World Cup squad, without playing a minute of Premier League football.
When the 17-year-old came on as a late substitute with Arsenal a goal down versus Aston Villa in the first game at their new home, and assisted Gilberto Silva for the equaliser, it seemed like fate. I believed it as much as anyone. Born just a few weeks before him, he was part of the first generation of Gunners that I would see from scratch, unlike the legends I’d inherited and adored in my first years. It was deeply personal, this attachment and investment, even though I forgot just how much in later years, only to be reminded by his departure.
Number 14- the heir apparent
When Henry left for Barcelona in the summer of 2007, Walcott was handed the number 14 jersey – there was no doubt about the club’s intention; this was his chance to create his own legacy. But he wasn’t simply inheriting the number; there were expectations of greatness, the pressure of living up to the glory that preceded him, of the Invincibles legend and the highest scorer in Arsenal’s history. With this decision, Arsene Wenger was making it clear that he was putting his trust in Project Youth, instead of looking for an established name to fill the considerable gap left by the Frenchman. With some jerseys at some clubs, it’s like the passing of a baton, like the AC Milan number 3 or Manchester United number 7. After Henry, the number 14 at Arsenal would make it into the same pantheon.
On the back of the World Cup spotlight, one wonders whether it was all too much for a 17-year-old, however talented.
Though there were some glorious moments, no denying it.
In March 2010, at the Emirates Stadium, Barcelona were dominating the first leg of the quarter-final, already two goals up. By then, I had moved to the North-West of England for university, and on this particular evening was caught up with class, having to make do with one of the only other Arsenal fans on campus texting me as it unfolded. I made it back to his just in time for Theo Walcott to come off the bench, score within 180 seconds and play a part in the penalty with which Fabregas duly equalised.
In October 2011, I was at the pub in Preston with friends, one of whom was another Gooner. We had approached this match against Chelsea with the kind of wariness only Arsenal fans can, even minus a Didier Drogba. We needn’t have worried. And Theo was a big part of that. In the 55th minute, he made up for all his passes that others should have scored from, by running at the Chelsea defence as he had done all game. Pace and purpose. With the ball at his feet, Theo tripped between two Chelsea players, got back up and whizzed through two defenders to score a well-deserved goal.
And saving the best for third – April 2008, one of my absolute favourite moments. I remember where I was sitting in the TV room at home in Mumbai, half on the bean-bag, half on the floor, when, with five minutes left, at 0-1, Theo sprinted some 80 yards to calmly pass the ball to Emmanuel Adebayor who easily slotted it in. With his run, he had evaded six Liverpool players. That one run showed that he could be breathtakingly good – fast, poised, perfect first touch.
It’s a run all his former coaches were familiar with. The move was almost a signature style of the lad from Stanmore who almost always played in one age group above his own. His Southampton U17 coach, Georges Prost believes that’s the reason Theo’s technical skills were better than other English lads coming up in the system around that time. That’s what led to a quicker development.
But with the evidence we have today, it’s safe to say that it was indeed too soon. Even after he signed for Arsenal, his development through the ranks was akin to his speed – and in his own words, sharing a dressing room with Henry, Pires and Ljunberg meant that he had to grow up.
Would things have been different today without so much pressure, scrutiny or expectations, and more time to learn and hone all-round skills? Were the expectations themselves misplaced? Because at top clubs like Arsenal, especially coming off the back of a squad that was undoubtedly special, the area between the very elite and the rung below it is unforgiving and lonely. And all factors conspired so that Thierry Henry’s intended successor learnt this the hard way.
Nature versus nurture
Theo Walcott never dreamed of becoming a footballer, even though he was a Liverpool supporter because of his father and worshipped Michael Owen. In fact, he played his first competitive game at the age of 10 for Steventon Boys in Oxfordshire because they were a player short. But he went on to score the perfect hat-trick (right foot, left foot, header) and everyone realised that he was a natural. His blistering pace was a big part of his burgeoning identity, and still is. But apart from that, who is Theo James Walcott?
“I believe that he has all the ingredients to be a great striker, because of the quality of his runs. He is an intelligent player, a good finisher. He is not a great defender, so I believe that to use his runs in the final third for us could be very efficient. On the flank, today there is much defensive work asked from the players that you lose a lot of his qualities when you put him there.” (Arsene Wenger, August 2016, Arsenal.com)
Theo Walcott has spent much of his career on the wings, rather than in the central striker’s position, and it is in the former position that he scored a career best 19 goals in the 2016-17 season. But, even now, there remains a doubt on what his best position is. Wenger calls it a complicated question to answer, while Walcott admitted recently that his stint as the central striker wasn’t the most successful and though he does offer skills there and on the left wing, the right is where he belongs.
Maybe this wasn’t so much a choice as a necessity with Arsenal switching to a 3-4-2-1 formation late in 2017, and severely limiting Walcott’s game time in the league. But the question remains – without a fixed identity, is it possible for someone to excel at the highest level? And let’s not forget the injuries, especially the ACL knock which ruined his best run of form for Arsenal till date, and his chance to play his first World Cup.
Here’s a player who has scored 108 goals in 397 appearances as the 15th highest scorer of a club with the history and pedigree of Arsenal. It would be churlish to call him a failure. But is it accurate to call him a success? Despite 2 FA Cups with Arsenal, the fact remains that Theo never lived up to the heights that were expected of him. All too often he drifted offside or messed up when he had time on the ball as opposed to an instinctive touch. All too often he went missing in a game. And the frustration at quantifying and analysing his potential versus what he actually offers and how often comes because of the wild inconsistency.
Theo has inadvertently become the symbol of the Arsenal microcosm in the post-2006 Wenger years. Brilliant, unbeatable on his day, patchy on others, full of potential, and almost there but not quite good enough. And maybe too nice.
Yet, what if that’s all he could ever offer? What if he hadn’t spent so much of his career trying to live up to that number 14 shirt? This may be an unpopular opinion among many in the Arsenal fanbase, but, for me, Theo Walcott, for all his weaknesses was equally a victim of inflated expectations, managerial decisions and quirks of fate.
Theo, Arsenal’s longest-serving current player, was the last remaining piece of the dream that all of us at Arsenal were so sure was just around the corner, and like with his arrival back in 2006, his departure to Merseyside is also the end of an era of sorts. Just as much as it’s the close of one chapter of my life as a fan, and of many others from my generation. It’s sad that it has come to this, that this dream has remained unfulfilled for the most part. But should we lambast someone for being only good enough?
Theo Walcott was always well-spoken, professional, loyal and hard-working, and I know I’m not the only one wishing him well at his new club; he’s one of the few ex-players who won’t be booed on his return.
Farewell, Feo and thanks for the memories.