It was after England’s elimination at the hands of Portugal in the 2006 World Cup that Theo Walcott walked round the stadium in Gelsenkirchen, away from the main group of players, and with only Aaron Lennon for company, taking in the atmosphere.
If being taken to a World Cup as a teenager, then yet to feature in the Premier League, and subsequently being overlooked by the manager had affected him it did not show. He was just 17 and the expectation was that, although this tournament had not worked out as he would have liked, there would be plenty more opportunities down the line.
Almost eight years on from then and still not 25 until March, Walcott knows that the third World Cup finals of his career is about to pass him by and there is nothing he can do about it. The cruciate ligament injury is not the career-ender it once was in the days of Brian Clough or that more recent teen prodigy Wayne Harrison, who died over Christmas, but it still claims a large chunk of any career.
Unused in 2006 when it was a mistake, later acknowledged by Sven Goran Eriksson, to take him, he was the surprise omission by Fabio Capello for the 2010 World Cup finals squad. His hat-trick against Croatia in September 2008 had given Capello’s qualifying campaign lift-off but, by the time the tournament came around, the Italian’s faith in him had ebbed.
On that occasion, Walcott accepted the decision with good grace and a statement wishing the team well. He could never really have been considered a favourite of Roy Hodgson, although he featured in the two qualifiers against Montenegro and Ukraine. He was injured for the two decisive games against Montenegro and Poland, in which Andros Townsend seized his chance.
The quality that Walcott has always possessed is the capacity to accept the bad times and come back stronger. Like all prodigies, much has been expected of him from an early age and he has always accepted the pressure with good humour and no bitterness. He is still young and there is a World Cup in him yet.
It was last season that Walcott came of age as an Arsenal player, responding with the best run of his career after threats from the club to freeze him out of the first team until he signed a new contract. As the club blundered on with heavy-handed negotiating tactics, he stuck to what he believed was his worth and eventually got the contract he wanted. He finished the season as the club’s top goalscorer.
During that time, he found himself the target for some supporters who, unhappy with the general malaise at Arsenal then, focused their anger on the contract refusenik. Now, as Arsenal pursue their first serious title challenge since 2007-2008, the absence of Walcott will be felt in a team that, for all its little artists, needs his raw pace.
His scoreline gesture to the Spurs fans over the weekend was typically innocent, given what some might have been tempted to do in the circumstances and the controversy that followed it was desperately overblown. It is pointless getting upset over these things when, as Walcott knows better than most, football can serve you champagne one day and cold cabbage soup the next.
He might have suffered more than his fair share of disappointments but his record suggests that he has the right temperament to bounce back from this latest one.
Transfer news: Strikers Arsenal could sign in January
Transfer news: Strikers Arsenal could sign in January
1/7 Diego Costa
The Atletico Madrid star has recently signed a new contract to remain in the Spanish capital, although it is reported that a £32m release clause can be activated to try and negotiate a move. Costa’s decision to leave Atletico would be surprising though, given their competitiveness in La Liga as they sit level on points with leaders Barcelona, and also their brilliant run in the Champions League. A move to London could also jeopardise his hopes of making the Spain squad for the 2014 World Cup after electing to play for the reigning champions rather than his native Brazil.
2/7 Dimitar Berbatov
His agent has already claimed that the Bulgarian would like to leave Fulham this month despite his contract expiring at the end of the season. With £2m believed to be enough to secure the former Tottenham and Manchester United striker, it would be a low cost, low risk option, but questions remain over his work rate and energy levels, and Wenger has denied any interest on his part. Whether Berbatov would quench the thirst of fans who feel another striker in integral to their title hopes remains uncertain, but he does come with a natural talent that few in the Premier League can match – if only he produced it regularly.
3/7 Karim Benzema
The Real Madrid striker was linked with a move away from the club in the summer after struggling to produce the form required to spearhead an attack that includes Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale. But the Frenchman has since hit his best, and a much mooted move to Arsenal now appears off the cards with Carlo Ancelotti determined not to sell. Benzema would no doubt be a world class acquisition that would provide further optimism at the Emirates that the Gunners are here to stay at the top, but it may take in excess of £30m (and thus bankroll a Real move for Luis Suarez) to trigger any chance of signing him this month.
Verdict: The slimmest of chances
4/7 Alvaro Morata
Benzema’s colleague at Real Madrid has been linked with a short-term move in the hope of seeking regular first team action, with Arsenal and Tottenham at the forefront of those rumours. Ancelotti’s desire not to let any players depart again causes an issue, but chances of securing Morata are much higher given Benzema’s current standing as the starting striker. Unproven, Morata would be an exciting talent but also back-up to Giroud, and you would have to question a decision to move to the Emirates when first team football is by no means guaranteed.
5/7 Mario Mandzukic
The Bayern Munich striker looks set to be displaced in his role as lead striker at the end of the season by the recently acquired Robert Lewandowski, and reports this morning suggest that Arsenal are one of the clubs interest in his services. A proven goalscorers, the Croatian would add experience and talent to the squad, but he’s unlikely to jump ship with Bayern on course for another trophy-laden season.
Verdict: Watch this space in summer
6/7 Loic Remy
On loan at Newcastle from Queens Park Rangers, Remy is available in January should Rangers receive a good enough offer. Remy has looked sharp throughout the first half of the season, leading the line for the Magpies with 10 goals in 18 appearances. It could take over £10m to acquire the Frenchman though, but Remy would inject a turn of pace that Giroud does seem to lack at the moment.
Verdict: Very possible
Swansea’s signing of the season last year hasn’t been as prolific this term, but his eye for a goal remains undoubted given his 22 goals in all competitions during his first year at the Liberty Stadium. However, Michu is currently on the sidelines through injury and would be a pointless signing to solve the current injury situation that the Gunners have. Despite links with the Spaniard, this move looks like a complete no-go.
Verdict: No chance
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- Brian Clough
- Fabio Capello
- Premier League
- Sven-goran Eriksson