Walcott: 'Dad said I was in the squad but I didn't believe him'

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The Independent Football

Theo Walcott will meet his hero, Michael Owen, when the England World Cup finals squad convenes on Monday, and the first thing he can do is ask the Newcastle striker about his famous goal against Argentina at the 1998 World Cup. The 17-year-old never saw it live on television - it took place, he admitted yesterday, past his bedtime.

While the English football nation comes to terms with a 17-year-old with no Premiership experience being in Sven Goran Eriksson's squad, the boy himself gave us all a reminder of just how young he is. Owen was 18 when he broke through the Argentina defence in St-Etienne for one of the greatest goals in England's history on 30 June 1998; Walcott was nine years old at the time and fast asleep.

Speaking for the first time yesterday, under the watchful eye of Arsenal, Walcott presented himself as an intelligent, modest teenager, more nervous about passing his driving test than helping Eriksson and his team conquer the world. On Monday, his father, Don, called with the news he was in the squad and Theomania duly began - the boy himself turned off the television and played Monopoly that evening with his family and friends.

By Monday, Wenger will take Walcott to Paris for the European Cup final or allow him to join his England team-mates at their Portugal training camp - "a dream either way," the player said. By 22 May, Walcott will leave behind his Monopoly set (it was the World Cup version) and join the wealthiest, most famous group of footballers in the country. Nothing will ever be quite the same for this boy from the Berkshire village of Compton.

"I took my driving theory test, finished at 3pm and rang my Dad - he said I was in the England squad and I didn't believe it," Walcott said. "I thought he was having me on. I just thought, 'First the move to Arsenal, then this. It's unbelievable.' I thought I might be in the reserves but never this..

"I saw Sven watching a couple of training sessions but I wasn't thinking about getting in the squad. Ashley [Cole] and Sol [Campbell] said he was coming to watch me as well as them but I just wanted to train as normal and not think about all that pressure. It crossed my mind but even when I was playing on Monday morning [for the reserves in front of Tord Grip], I didn't want to think about it too much. I just wanted to concentrate on my game. I had my driving test to think about.

"I just wanted to pass my theory. My girlfriend [Melanie] passed it first time so the pressure is on. I just wanted to match her. I can't drive yet. My practical would have been in June but obviously I can't do that now.

The small matter of the World Cup finals has changed that. It is chastening to hear that Walcott considers his biggest game so far to be a visit to Elland Road in the Championship in August for his Southampton senior debut and the FA Youth Cup final last season. "I've played in front of big crowds before," he said, "and I have been at the Bernabeu with 80,000 people." Although, like them, he also was not playing.

What else is there no know about Walcott? He does not drink alcohol. His favourite food is his father's shepherd's pie and his hero was Owen, whom he met as a ball-boy at Stamford Bridge when Chelsea were courting him - understood to be the 2-1 defeat of Liverpool on 29 April, 2000.

"I always had a Liverpool shirt when I was younger, I had a [Emile] Heskey shirt and a Michael Owen shirt," he said. "I met Michael Owen when I was 11. He was my hero so it will be good to be around him. As a ball-boy at Chelsea I met Dennis Wise, Michael Owen and Robbie Fowler.

"I watched the 2002 World Cup, but not the 1998 tournament or the game against Argentina. I have seen the Michael Owen goal on tape but the game must have been past my bedtime."

Walcott said his father was "emotional" when he told him the news although he recovered sufficiently to beat his son at World Cup Monopoly that evening (Walcott Jnr used the golden boot as his piece on the board). They spend a lot of time together in Walcott's flat near Arsenal's training ground in south Hertfordshire and the player said that his life revolved around his family and girlfriend.

"I want to spend some time with my family before I go because the World Cup will be the longest I have ever been away from them," he said. "My family have always been around me, all my mates, my girlfriend. I have had a very normal, balanced life. I have got [ agent] Warwick Horton here and my family to keep my feet on the ground and I don't think that will be a problem. I have been doing that since I went to Southampton."

He may have set his sights on a humble Volkswagen Golf - "that will do for me" - when he passes his test but Walcott is about to join the real high-rollers later this month. He said the time spent training with the first team at Arsenal had given him an excellent grounding in the highest standards and that he had been "itching" to get on for his club in his six games on the bench.

"I have trained with world-class players every day," he said. "I haven't played for the first team but I am only going to improve watching Dennis Bergkamp and Thierry Henry. Every training session. Watching Thierry's finishing. What Dennis can do is unbelievable.

"I am really excited but I want to get a couple of games under my belt. To become the youngest England international, especially somewhere like Old Trafford, would be a real honour.

"Arsenal have faith in young players. What Arsène Wenger has done with Cesc Fabregas, knowing when to play him, when to rest him, improving his game, you can tell what a genius he is. Hopefully he can do that with me, but I know I have to work hard in every training session to do that. He was watching me when I was 14 which shows the faith in me. I knew Arsenal had been tracking me since then."

He said that the Arsenal players had helped him to "fit in" from the very start and that he had joined because he "loved playing with the quick players, on the floor" - perfect for a boy who admitted to once scoring nine goals in a game for his school team. And if Brazil meet England in the semi-finals in July, one of the men in yellow might recognise him. Walcott said that, as they warmed up during the Champions' League second leg at Highbury, he persuaded Robinho to promise to exchange shirts.

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