Theo Walcott: Just 17 ... and in the World Cup squad

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The Independent Online

To much of the nation the name of the football prodigy Theo Walcott may have meant very little until yesterday. He has, after all, never played in the Premiership and has been kept under wraps since he made a £12m move to Arsenal when he was barely out of his school uniform.

Lack of exposure will be the last of the 17-year-old's concerns now after Sven Goran Eriksson, the England coach, named the striker in his squad for next month's World Cup in Germany.

Whether it is an act of desperation in the probable absence of the injured Wayne Rooney, or an inspired choice by Eriksson - bearing in mind he has never even watched the youngster play a match - will be debated for weeks to come.

If he makes his debut in England's opening game against Paraguay on 10 June, he will beat Rooney by becoming the nation's youngest ever player, aged 17 years and 86 days. But whether or not he is picked for that game, his minimal celebrity status - which has resulted in him being recognised while out with his girlfriend, Melanie - is about to go stratospheric.

Walcott has spent his formative years in Compton, near Newbury in Berkshire - an area with a rich horse-racing tradition but hardly a cradle of football talent. He joined amateur football club Newbury in their Under-11 side, scoring a hat-trick in his first ever competitive game and in his first season he scored 100 goals in 35 games with his fierce shot - which once broke the hand of a goalkeeper. He also had blistering pace and ran the 100 metres in just 11.5 seconds when aged 14.

"He is a great talent. I have 23 players, why not take one gamble?" Eriksson said. "It's a big gamble, I know it is. I am excited to see him, he's a big talent. And pace in football today is worth a lot."

The Swede has seen him train with Arsenal and his assistant Tord Grip has watched him play for the Arsenal under-21 side against an Irish youth side.

Walcott's agent, Colin Gordon, said the news had come as a shock. "He didn't find out very quickly, he was doing his theory test for his driving exam and his dad was waiting for him in a local car park," Mr Gordon said. "[His dad] came out sprinting from the car to tell him the great news before he was accosted by an Arsenal fan. His dad got a phone call from the FA and he also heard it on the radio in the car."

Asked what the teenager's reaction was, Mr Gordon told Sky Sports News: "He's still in shock. He was only expecting one decent result today. He did pass his theory test, but there you go, he's got two." Gordon admitted a standby place had been "the most Theo could hope for" but does not expect the elevation to the senior squad to faze him.

Walcott is the youngest of three children. His parents, father Don, an RAF civilian administrator, and midwife mother Lynne, have been tasked with keeping their son's feet on the ground. A distant relative of the West Indies cricketer Sir Clyde Walcott, he is also a talented cricketer. "I was coming up to 11, I did not really have a clue how to play - I suppose it just came naturally," Walcott said recently. "I was a fast runner and they would put it over the top and I would run on to it."

Walcott moved to Southampton FC at 11 after being impressed with the club's "family atmosphere". He was so excited at joining the club's academy that when he was shown his room he broke the bed by jumping up and down on it.

He played for Southampton's youth side and for the reserve team, at the age of 15, against Watford. In the England Under-17 team, he scored five goals in nine games.

He joined Arsenal in January for a £5m, rising to £12m, making him the most expensive 16-year-old in British football history, but was paid only £90 a week until his 17th birthday on 16 March, when he was able to sign a professional contract.

The player says his family, who live in a £200,000 redbrick semi, will not let the attention go to his head. "I was always treated as the little brother," he said. "I owe my family everything. We've always been close and they've always made sacrifices for me."

After Rooney's World Cup hopes were dealt a blow fortnight ago, he appeared on crutches and asked to be spared the media limelight so as he could recover from a broken metatarsal. Thanks to Walcott, his plea has been answered.

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