Time for Theo to pack a punch

Walcott the wunderkind has been expertly guided by Arsène Wenger and now he is ready to mix it with the big boys
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The Independent Football

Dropping in at the Elthorne Park boxing club in Islington as part of Arsenal's Kickz community programme, a smiling Theo Walcott was happy to don gloves and try a jab or two, but a little more reluctant to throw a real left hook after the shoulder operation last spring that caused him to miss the end of last season and the European Under-21 Championship finals. It was typically responsible behaviour from an impressively mature young man who nevertheless knows that on the pitch this is a season in which there can be no holding back; in his second full campaign as an Arsenal player, England's youngest international needs to be punching his weight.

He accepts that challenge readily: "This season I've set very high targets really, of 25 starts and 10 goals." The goals remain elusive, and while he may initially be on the bench for Tuesday's Champions' League game away to Steaua Bucharest, Arsène Wenger demonstrated increased confidence by offering two starts in four days last week, against Derby County and then Newcastle. Off-beam with his shooting and finding life difficult against a cagey old campaigner in Derby's Andy Griffin, he looked much more sure of himself in the Carling Cup tie after a slow start stuck out on the left flank.

"At times I wonder if he knows how to get into the game," observed one old pro, who had his doubts quickly answered. Walcott's assessment of his own performance left no room for negative thoughts: "I thought I did all my jobs right, workedhard, got crosses and shots in, did everything but score really."

Lest that sounds immodest, it is worth recording the touching sense of awe that also decorates his conversation, for instance in describing the time in January 2006 when by moving from Southampton as a 16-year-old for a fee that could rise as high as£12 million, he became a reluctant national celebrity and entered an Arsenal dressing-room full of figures who had done rather more to deserve that status.

"I walked in and in one corner there was Thierry Henry, Robert Pires, Freddie Ljungberg, Sol Campbell and Ashley Cole. I thought to myself, 'This is unbelievable'. I had my picture taken with Thierry and I looked scared. The hardest thing when you join a club is to get all the players to accept you, but they looked after me and I think I've done that now."

Remarkably, within 18 months, every one of those five senior figures had left Arsenal as a new generation emerged, of which Walcott is very much a part. From the start it has been possible to see the hand of Wenger guiding his career like the most protective of boxing promoters. No throwing him in against any world champions too soon: "Go on holiday" was the first instruction. There followed just three reserve games, carefully spaced out, but also a place on the substitutes' bench for huge Champions' League games against Real Madrid and Juventus ("brilliant just to be a part of it") before Sven Goran Eriksson shot him back into the television news bulletins with selection for the World Cup squad despite not having played a single Premier League game.

"It was a big shock to everyone, including myself, but a learning curve. It was a fantastic experience to train with world-class players and be around them, see how they handle the media and everything. Just brilliant."

The following season came a dramatic entrance as the first Premier League game at the Emirates Stadium, against Aston Villa, seemed to be slipping away: Walcott came off the bench with a quarter of an hour left and made the equaliser for Gilberto Silva to earn instant love from the Arsenal crowd. Later that season, Wenger picked the undemanding home game with Watford for a first League start, then a couple of more testing away matches, at Bolton and Wigan; FA Cup ties at home to Bolton and Blackburn, but not the replays; and a starting place in every Carling Cup tie, including the final against Chelsea, when he took the ball down brilliantlyto score his first goal for the club.

Unexpectedly, it remains his only score to date, and therefore an area in which to seek improvement: "I want to move on and get some more this year. Once I get the first one, hopefully that will happen. The thing I'm concentrating on in my game at the moment is the final third, making the right decisions about whether to shoot or cross. But I don't want to put pressure on myself about getting goals, just work hard in training and do my jobs right."

He is well adjusted for someone who had a first Nike sponsorship at the age of 13, went from primary school to the Premier League in six years and became the BBC's Young Sports Personality of the Year. It is necessary to remember he still has 18 months left as a teenager, albeit hardly a typical one. "It feels like I've been around a long time," he says. Theo still lives with mum and dad, who are minor celebrities in their own right after appearing in a Harry Potter film, as is girlfriend Mel, who in between A-levels and a place at university in London has been climbing Kilimanjaro for charity. In Mel's absence, he has been cultivating facial hair, with some success. Softly, softly, Theo is becoming a man and is ready to mix it with the big boys. Seconds out...

Arsenal Kickz is a football development and life skills programme for young people in Islington aged 10 to 19. For more information: footballfoundation.org.uk

Champions' League: This week's ties

TUESDAY:

Lyon v Rangers

A winning start against Stuttgart offers Rangers encouragement for the first of three daunting away trips. Alain Perrin, disastrous as Portsmouth's coach, has already fallen out with Juninho at the club who won the past six French titles. They began Group E by losing 3-0 to Barcelona.

Manchester United v Roma

The 7-1 victory over Roma in last season's quarter-finals was one of United's great performances in Europe. Short of goals so far this season, they would settle for three points this time to add to an opening victory in Lisbon, while Roma, early Serie A leaders, beat Dynamo Kiev 2-0.

Steaua Bucharest v Arsenal

Steaua's owner claims the current squad are better than those that won the European Cup 21 years ago against Terry Venables' Barcelona in a penalty shoot-out. Beaten 2-1 by Slavia Prague as Arsenal saw off Seville, Gheorghe Hagi's men would be delighted with a point here.

WEDNESDAY:

Celtic v Milan

Consistently losing away games in Europe, as they did against Shakhtar a fortnight ago, puts pressure on Celtic at home. This should be quite a night against the holders, who drew there 0-0 last season and needed extra time in Milan to win. They have made a stumbling start in Serie A.

Liverpool v Marseille

Djibril Cissé and Bolo Zenden will look forward to Anfield more than their colleagues. Expected to challenge for the French title, they won one of their opening nine games, which led to Eric Gerets being brought in as coach last week. Liverpool ought to do better than their draw in Porto.

Valencia v Chelsea

After a comfortable outing to Hull and back, what awaits Avram Grant on his next road trip? A talented squad including David Villa, David Silva and Fernando Morientes, as well as a lively crowd. Winning there last season was one of Jose Mourinho's best efforts; a draw would do Grant.

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