Arsenal lead race to sign Walcott, the St Mary's wonder boy

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The Independent Football

The upheavals at Southampton over the past few months are increasingly likely to lead to the departure of 16-year-old Theo Walcott in the January transfer window. Bids are expected from Arsenal, Tottenham, Chelsea and Liverpool that will severely test the resolve of the Championship club to hold on to their prize asset.

Arsenal have emerged as favourites to sign Walcott but may have to pay between £8m and £12m, when appearance money and other add-ons are included, to secure a player who is so highly prized by Arsène Wenger that he is understood to regard him as the long-term replacement for Thierry Henry.

If Walcott, who incidentally idolises Henry, is sold he is likely to be loaned back to Southampton until the end of the season. The club's chairman, Rupert Lowe, remains adamant that he will do all he can to hold on to the right-sided attacker who is still, technically, a first-year scholar. Walcott does not turn 17 until March, when he would be due to sign a professional contract.

However, Lowe also realises that every player has his price, and he has to justify his decisions to the club's board. If a substantial offer is tabled then it will be hard to resist, although the appointment of George Burley, as head coach, may provide some much needed stability.

It is hoped that, along with the now director of football, Sir Clive Woodward, Burley will put in place the structures to protect and develop Walcott. There are concerns that the teenager has already been playing too much first-team football when he should be working on his skills and be used more sparingly. Walcott has made 18 first-team appearances this season, scoring four goals, but the benefits of playing first-team football in the Championship, and in front of crowds of 25,000, need to be weighed against the long-term development of such a highly rated talent .

Walcott, who ran the 100 metres in under 11.7 seconds at the age of 14, and who made his first-team debut in August, aged just 16 years and 143 days, appears to be some fast-track prospect. He has been talked about by the country's top talent-spotters. They regard him, along with Barcelona's Lionel Messi, as the hottest teenager in Europe.

But the fear is that he is playing too much football already, especially in such an uncompromising division and in a team that is over-reliant on him. Would it not be better for Walcott to be working on the deficiencies in his game such as his appreciation of what to do on the ball and his awareness of time and space? Maybe, also, that would be more profitably honed on the training fields alongside Henry, Frank Lampard or Edgar Davids, than in the full glare of a first team, week in, week out.

At present it is thought he is happy to remain at St Mary's with the player, his family and advisers having chosen Southampton, which has a well-earned reputation for developing young players, ahead of other, more lucrative, high-profile offers. It was felt Southampton was the best place for him to learn to be a professional footballer.

But the tensions involving Lowe, former manager Harry Redknapp, Woodward, the now-departed coach Simon Clifford and the Saints' coaching staff have not helped matters while the departure of Steve Wigley ­ unsuccessful as manager but regarded as a brilliant youth coach ­ to Manchester City, caused disappointment.

With his family home in Newbury, Walcott first became attached to Swindon Town before turning down the overtures of other clubs, including Chelsea, to join Southampton. But Wenger's reputation and ability to develop young players, especially those in need of coaching on their technique, makes Arsenal a very attractive option.

The Arsenal manager will face stiff competition from Chelsea, who have tracked the player since the age of 10 and have stayed in contact with developments through their new head of youth Frank Arnesen.

Spurs are also serious contenders,in view of the way in which the head coach Martin Jol is bringing on some of the young, especially English, talent at the club. The teenager has signed a pre-contract agreement with Southampton, as is standard for scholars, and there is no desire to break that if matters improve at the club. The deal he eventually signs on his 17th birthday will outstrip any other signed by a player of the same age, even Wayne Rooney. Whether that is at Southampton or elsewhere will soon become apparent.

Lowe's highs in transfer market

The Southampton chairman, Rupert Lowe, has a history of getting good prices for players who have not always gone on to prove value for money:

* DEAN RICHARDS The central defender followed Glenn Hoddle from Saints to Spurs in 2001 and made 71 appearances but was never the England player Hoddle predicted. Spurs' original offer of £4m was turned down and Lowe eventually sold for £8.1m ­ still their record transfer fee received. Profit: £6.25m.

* KEVIN DAVIES The striker was sold to Blackburn in 1998 for £7.5m after scoring just nine League goals in 25 games. Scored one League goal in 24 games over two seasons for Blackburn before returning to Southampton in 1999. Davies was released in 2003 and joined Bolton. Profit: £6.75m.

* JAMES BEATTIE Bought for £1m by Dave Jones in 1998. In 2003 the striker ended the season as top scorer with 23. In January, Everton spent a club record £6m on the England international. Has scored three times in 28 League games. Profit: £5m.

* PETER CROUCH Striker sold to Liverpool for £7m last summer has scored two League goals so far from 13 games. Was signed for £2m by Paul Sturrock in the summer of 2004. Profit: £5m.

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