Walcott ready to soar after flying the nest

Winger targets World Cup trip after leaving home and growing up fast at Arsenal
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The Independent Football

Tattoos by David Beckham's body artist and creating paintings for an exhibition, even a mohawk haircut. The Theo Walcott who has just moved out of his parents' house is not the same wide-eyed teenager who joined Arsenal from Southampton in January 2006 and was then, to everyone's astonishment, part of the World Cup squad five months later.

Not that Walcott, 20, returning from injury and expected to be involved today against Fulham, has become a brash, outspoken young man after three and a half years under Arsène Wenger, the Arsenal manager. Walcott is trying to grow a Mohawk while the the newest tattoo is, endearingly, of dragons and knights and remains under wraps, and the artwork is for a charity founded by Bob Wilson, the former Arsenal goalkeeper.

Action for Walcott today, even if just from the substitutes' bench, would be his first appearance after a summer marked by controversy, when he was included in the England squad in the Under-21 European Championship, much to Wenger's displeasure, after playing for the senior England team in two World Cup qualifiers.

He then picked up a back injury in pre-season that seemed to reinforce Wenger's view that Walcott had been overplayed, and he was ruled out of the start to this season including the away defeats to Manchester United and Manchester City.

Speaking at the exhibition in north London, Walcott said: "I'm definitely ready to go now. It's been a long time, especially after the Under-21s and I came back when the others had started pre-season training, so that set me back."

Then came his decision to up sticks, with his girlfriend Melanie, which led to him going through what most people feel when they leave the nest. He says: "The first couple of weeks is quite difficult living away from home. I found myself locking up my house and just going back to my parents' house, to be honest. But my place feels like home now so it's all good. You want to be your own person as well as being close to your family." Not least of all, the move has taken him away from his father's expert cooking.

In his absence, England have qualified for the World Cup. The 5-1 win at Wembley against Croatia this month that secured a spot in South Africa came a year after Walcott had apparently made his place in Fabio Capello's side permanent with a hat-trick in the 4-1 win in Zagreb.

However, Aaron Lennon's skill and speed on the right wing against Croatia, as well as Shaun Wright-Phillips' presence, mean Walcott will have to fight hard to make his first playing appearance at a World Cup. As a thoughtful man, he is well aware of the competition for places. He says: "It feels like I've been round for a very long time but I'm still only 20. There's always going to be pressure but down the years I think I've dealt with it fairly well. It's a big year for me so I just want to get back on the pitch and forget about the injuries." His team-mates at Arsenal will echo that.

The Art of Sport, in aid of the Willow Foundation, is on at the Catto Gallery in Hampstead until 27 September. For more information or to view the artwork visit www.willowfoundation.org.uk/artofsport