Theo Walcott: The story of the prodigy who didn’t make it, but almost did

” What are we going to see from Theo Walcott in the second half?”, the Arsenal TV commentator asked as the winger received the ball by the touchline. Head down, ball at his feet, Walcott cut in and set off on his surge towards goal. A surge that alas, lasted two touches. ” Tripping over his own feet, by the looks of it”, his co-commentator offered sarcastically as Walcott fell to the floor. The follow up quip at the tip of his tongue dramatically morphed into a high pitched shriek by the time it escaped into utterance. Walcott had arisen. In the blink of an eye, he skipped past Ivanovic and Terry, before smashing the ball into the bottom corner. ” What are we going to see from Theo Walcott!“, the first commentator bellowed as Walcott ran towards the red end of Stamford Bridge. 

It’s a goal that typified Walcott. Comically clumsy at his worst, a lighting bolt as his best. It’s this duality that has confused fans, opponents and managers and has clouded their perception of him. It’s a duality that has tormented Walcott his entire career.

ACT 1: AWAKENING

Theo Walcott signed for Arsenal as a 16 year old in January 2006, after 21 appearances and 4 goals for Southampton in the Championship. Five months on, he was named in Sven-Goran Erikson’s 23 man squad for the World Cup after making precisely zero appearances for Arsenal. 

It took one training session for the backroom team to realize that he was far off the required level. Walcott boarded the flight to Germany as nothing more than a passenger. 

2006 wasn’t the best time for an Englishman to break onto the scene. While appearances were hard to come by for Walcott, scrutiny was piled in abundance. The houndish English media was thirsty for  ‘the next big thing’. With the likes of Shaun-Wright Philipps,  and Aaron Lennon having unsuccessfully auditioned for the role, the next candidate up to bat ended was Walcott. This was the last era of touchline-based wingers, and Walcott played to the charm of an old-school, pacy winger. A hatrick to open his account for England in the World Cup qualifier away to Croatia in 2008 only furthered the hype. ” A coming of age performance”, Henry Winter eulogized in the Telegraph. 

Arsenal fans watched on in wonder, but not surprise. Back in 2006, Arsene Wenger was at the peak of his scouting powers. In just the previous three years, his eagle eye had unearthed gems like Fabregas, Van Persie and Gael Clichy, all important members of the first team. ‘Arsene knows’, you could hear North London breathe as Walcott shone for England. With the team entering a period of transition , Walcott was expected to be the one to herald the Emirates Era. 

Hope and Expectation weighed down on his prodigal shoulders

“Most players don’t get to go to a World Cup – I’m the lucky one. Becoming England’s youngest player would be something special. The likes of Michael Owen and Wayne Rooney were put in at young ages and if I do something like they’ve done in their careers it would be special,” he said on the day of his call-up.

It’s interesting that Walcott brings up Owen’s name. While their career trajectories are very different, they do share one very odd similarity. They belonged to country before club. 

In his autobiography, Carra, Jamie Carragher talks about how Owen’s goal against Argentina in the 1998 World Cup made him an England hero before a Liverpool one. Despite being a local lad like Steven Gerrard, he never quite enjoyed the same level of adoration reserved for Gerrard. 

Walcott too was associated with the white before the red. The limelight the Arsenal move pushed him into appeared as nothing more than a flicker compared to the national team spotlight. 

It complicated his relationship with Arsenal fans, who took a couple of seasons to completely warm up to him. While there were flickers of magic scattered across his early seasons at Arsenal, it never matched up to the tantalizing hope pinned on him. It was a feeling that never quite went away. Was it wasted potential or was it a case of wrongly judged potential? 

ACT 2: BELONGING

Right Wing vs Center Forward. The debate that has raged all through Walcott’s Arsenal career as he vacillated between the two positions. 

Having played on the wing his entire career, Walcott always had the inner desire to play through the middle.

“Theo would love to play in the middle,” Wenger said. “Don’t forget that when Thierry Henry came here, he was a winger. When I played Henry as a central striker, he said to me: ‘But I can’t score goals.’ It’s difficult to compare the similarities – is Thierry a replica of Theo? Is Theo a replica of Thierry? No. But they have in common tremendous pace, they are good finishers and both are intelligent,” Wenger told the Guardian in 2010. 

It was a debate that really came to the fore in the 2012-2013 season. With Van Persie having departed to United and Olivier Giroud still adapting to English football, Walcott put forward his case to be played through the middle. His finishing in the box was more clinical, with a solid return of 24 goals and 21 assists in the previous two seasons.

“I want to be an Arsenal legend. Thierry joined the club when he was 22 and I want to become an Arsenal legend like him, playing up front as well, which is a big factor for me. I’ve played on the right wing and had the opportunity to play up front a bit more so I think it’s about time,” he said in an interview in September 2012. 

His ongoing contract negotiations complicated matters and the standoff resulted in fewer Premier League minutes. After the opening day of the season, Walcott’s next start came only in November. His prolificacy in the Cup competitions,( all coming from the wing) only furthered his claim to be played down the middle.  

The pressure on the club grew. Henry moved from the wing to the middle and used to wear No.14 too, the romantics romanticized. Theo deserved his chance.

Wenger finally relented and started Walcott through the middle against Reading in mid-December. The first time since 2009, and only the third time he was given the central role. 

He reprised the role in the following two games, and against Newcastle bagged a hatrick and two assists in arguably his best performance in an Arsenal shirt. The last goal was a thing of beauty, where after being dragged down in the box, he got right back up, took a touch and clinically chipped over the keeper. The surety of the touch and composure of the finish was an anomaly. Had Theo Walcott come off age? 

“Sign him up, sign him up” the Emirates crowd serenaded as he walked off the pitch, match ball in hand. Twenty days later, he did. Interestingly, he never played through the middle again for the rest of the season, shunted back out to the right. Nevertheless, he finished the season with 21 goals and 16 assists, with 17 of those goals coming from the wing. 

And, that should have been the end of the center forward debate. but it raised its head again in the tail end of the 2014-15 season. With Olivier Giroud horribly out of form and scoreless since early April, Walcott was handed the central starting role in the final game of the season against West Brom and bagged a 33 minute hattrick. He piped Giroud to a starting position in the FA Cup Final, and opened the scoring for Arsenal in the first half. 

Alas, it was a false dawn. He struggled to make the position his own the following season, finishing with a measly 9 goals. Wenger had been right in his assessment of Walcott’s physical attributes and lack of aerial prowess. To date, Walcott has scored only four headed goals in his career.His xG for the 2015-2016 was a shocking 8.39. 

Exclusion from the England squad for Euro 2016 sent Walcott soul-searching. A new fitness plan and an important conversation with Wenger followed. 

“I can play anywhere across the line but I wanted to go back to what I know best and the manager’s put so much faith in me by playing me on the right-hand side. I need to keep on repaying that faith,” he said.

A rejuvenated Walcott started the season with a bang, reaching 11 goals in all competitions by mid October. But, with only an additional 8 goals for the rest of the season, he was left out of the starting XI for the FA Cup semi-final and final. 

How do you make sense of a player as mercurial as Theo Walcott?

Walcott is a confidence player who’s most dangerous when he’s got a goal. His 10 braces and 5 hat tricks attest to this. But, when things aren’t going well, the panic in his head is so openly tangible. The constant vacillation of position sowed seeds of self-doubt in him and he took too long to find out where he plays best. He never really found any consistency in performance, with his longest goalscoring streak being just three games. 

There was a feeling with Walcott that he was constantly starting over. At a time where Arsenal fans were thirsty for success, the Emirates faithful began to lose patience with the winger and were vocal with their frustrations. The groans were audible after each miss pass or overhit cross, and tended to dampen the celebration a goal would bring. Belonging was a two-fold problem.  

Despite all the high profile exits from the Emirates, Walcott never took on the mantle for the main man. He wasn’t built for the throne, a fact he realized far too late. His desire to move from the wings to the center seems like a metaphor for his time at Arsenal.

He was the Perennial Figure. The one who stuck around. His tenacity and overwhelming urge to succeed meant that his contributions and achievements tend to be taken for granted. 11 years, 399 appearances, 109 goals, 3 FA Cups. The numbers tell a different story from the narrative. 

At a time where the definition of a winger was being re-defined, there was something antiquated about Walcott’s game. He lacked the flair to captivate like Bale and Hazard, and didn’t have the panache and poise of someone like Riyadh Mahrez, a long term Arsenal target. 

The 2013/14 season, his best for the club, was completely overshadowed by Bale’s exploits a few miles away in North London. His fellow Southampton teammate thrived in his inverted winger role on the right, and set the template that was widely adopted by managers in the Premier League. Similarly, Hazard thrived on the left wing under Antonio Conte, and Chelsea rode on his goals and assists to the title in 2017. It’s easy to forget that Walcott, who remained deployed on the right, outscored Hazard with 19 goals that season. 

Walcott always seemed on the cusp of unlocking a higher level, but never quite made it past this last rung. The role his injury record played in this can’t be ignored. The worst of which was his ACL rupture in 2014 against Tottenham in the FA Cup; an injury that ruled him out for the season and also meant he missed out on the World Cup in Brazil. Between 2013 and 2015, Arsenal was crying out for a forward of Walcott’s profile – but injuries meant he made just 40 appearances across those two seasons. The recurring niggles, strains and ruptures meant Walcott could never cement a place in the starting XI. 

ACT 3: LEGACY

Going through Walcott’s goals and performances for Arsenal, it struck me just how many important goals he’d scored. And,how many I’d forgotten.  Theo Walcott had the uncanny habit of having his contributions overshadowed – either by the result, a teammate’s performance or on-field incidents. 

Take his very first goal for Arsenal. After exchanging a quick one-two with Abou Diaby, he ghosted past Ricardo Carvalho and cooly finished to give Arsenal the lead over Chelsea in the 2006 Carling Cup Final. An exquisite goal that was reduced to a footnote in game that saw a Drogba double, a Terry concussion and an on-field brawl. 

His first Premier League goals against Birmingham City too,  were met with minimal fanfare. Arsenal’s title aspirations in 2008 crumbled at St. Andrews that day as they drew 2-2 in a game remembered for Edoardo’s horrific injury. 

In the first-leg of the Champions League quarter-final against Barcelona in 2009, it was his second half cameo that was crucial to Arsenal’s comeback from 2-0 down. But, post game the spotlight was taken by Fabregas, who scored his penalty with a broken leg. 

The 5-7 Reading game in the Capital One Cup in 2012, a game Arsenal dramatically won after being 4-0 down. In the absurdity of the game, it’s easy to forget Walcott’s hatrick on the night. 

Or the game against eventual Champions Leicester in 2016, arguably one of the greatest games at the Emirates. While it was Welbeck who sent the stadium into delirium, it was Walcott who had sparked the equalizer with his goal soon after coming on. 

He was a unique big-game player. Over the course of his entire career, Spurs are the teams he’s been most prolific against, followed closely by Chelsea. 

He isn’t an Arsenal legend, neither is he a cult figure like Ramsey or Cazorla. He lacked the magnetism and passion to strike such a chord with the fans. There was a relationship, not a connection. 

The gesture towards the Spurs fans when being stretchered off and the ‘Mertesacker celebration’ with a ballboy after an FA Cup tie were nice moments. But, that’s all they were. Sadly for Theo Walcott, all through his Arsenal career, he was a man who created moments, not memories. 

The timing of his departure was cruel. He left for Everton in a January window that saw Arsenal break their transfer record and also sell their best player to Manchester United. He’d barely taken off the No.14 jersey, before it had been handed to Aubameyang. Forget farewell, it was hardly a goodbye. 

Timing shapes legacies, and unfortunately for Theo Walcott, his was always slightly off.

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Shubhankar Arun

Shubi is a writer from Bangalore who has a strong passion for storytelling at the intersection of sport and culture. He has been married to Arsenal Football Club for the past 14 years