Sam Wallace: Pressure of last few months has shown Theo Walcott at his best
Arsenal's contract rebel has delivered on his promise that he is best suited in the central striker's role
The disadvantage of being Theo Walcott, it is often observed, is that even though he is only 23 years old, it feels like he has been around for much longer. Accordingly, he gets judged by much higher standards than his peers who have had more low-profile starts to their career.
That much is true. But try looking at it a different way. By the age of 19, Walcott had played 61 games for Arsenal. By means of comparison, by the time Ashley Cole turned 19, he had played just once for Arsenal, in the League Cup, and on the occasion of his 19th birthday he was on loan at Crystal Palace in what is now the Championship. Cole won his first England cap aged 20 and 97 days; Walcott reached a similar milestone more than three years younger, aged 17 and 74 days.
By the age of 21, Walcott had won nine caps for England. Some might consider it a poor return, given that he had made his debut aged 17. But nine caps at the age of 21 is more than Steven Gerrard (four at 21), John Terry (none) and Frank Lampard (none) had won between them. Rio Ferdinand had eight caps by his 21st birthday.
Of course, no one can compete with the prodigy of all recent prodigies, Wayne Rooney, who, among other achievements, had 35 caps at the age of 21, but Walcott's developmental record stacks up pretty well against the rest. His 61 games for Arsenal, plus the 23 he had played for Southampton's first team as a 16-year-old in the 2005-2006 season means that he had more senior games under his belt at 19 than even Michael Owen (70).
Walcott has built a decent career thus far. It would be foolish to pretend that he is the polished, finished article. He is still billed as the inheritor of Thierry Henry's Arsenal legacy, a huge expectation on any player. But the fact that people should make the comparison is an indicator of the standards that were set for him as a 16-year-old. Either way, on Saturday evening, as he scored an accomplished hat-trick against Newcastle, Walcott looked just fine.
Even Alan Hansen, one of Walcott's most trenchant critics in the past, conceded on Match of the Day on Saturday night that the player's recent development has surprised him. Hansen also acknowledged that it has come against the backdrop of the contract stand-off with Arsenal. Indeed, Walcott's uncompromising attitude towards his contract seems to have manifested itself in his performances on the pitch.
When Walcott was told by Arsenal's transfer and contract fixer Dick Law on 24 August that the club insisted he should either sign the offer of a contract or prepare to be sold by the end of the transfer window, he was in a distinctly awkward position.
By that point of the season he had started just one Premier League game, the first in August against Sunderland. Frozen out by Arsène Wenger, he would not start another until 10 November. There was not much sympathy for him among the support. Some of the giddier elements declared themselves happy for him to leave for nothing in July. From that point Walcott turned it around.
The last few months have shown Walcott at his best. From his first start after a thawing of the ice, and three goals in that 7-5 win over Reading in the Capital One Cup, to Saturday's hat-trick he has transformed his situation. He has gone from being left out of the side altogether to delivering, on Saturday in particular, on his promise that he is best suited in the central striker's role.
Of course, there will be times when he still frustrates. A one-on-one with Adam Federici early against Reading in the league game this month which he failed to finish was one such occasion. Yet for a long time Walcott has been forced to fit a template of what people think he should be. It might be time to accept him for what he is.
His development may never match the clean, upwards trajectory of Rooney or even, in his first six years or so, Owen. Walcott is the kind of player who stumbles over a chance one week and then strokes home a more difficult opportunity the next. That just seems to be the way it is for now, but no one could possibly argue that he is not improving.
As for Arsenal, they have made a pig's ear of the contract negotiations. Their hard-line stance over a relatively limited amount of money was too late in the day and now looks petty. The threat to sell in August evaporated over the space of a weekend, and as for being left out the team until he signed, well, it was fortunate for them that Wenger did not pursue that policy for too long. Little wonder that Walcott will not be rushing back to negotiate.
No club can make a player sign a contract, but then no club should wait until 10 months until the end of that player's deal to get tough. Either way, Walcott has called Arsenal's bluff. He has scored 14 goals since they threatened to sell him in August. Given the treatment he has endured from some Arsenal fans, most notably in the Spurs game in February, he might have chosen to keep his head down and stick it out for the free transfer.
It is a personal view that Walcott should stay at Arsenal but, given that he will be expected to sign for five years, for arguably his peak years in the game, you can hardly blame him for trying to get the best deal possible. Even then, his salary will be nothing like the big earners at Manchester City and Chelsea. He will, no doubt, back himself to improve over those years. Certainly, the last four months could have broken him. Instead he has flourished.
Time for Lampard to leave Chelsea on a high
Chelsea's decision not to give Frank Lampard a new contract has become one of those issues that provokes considerable indignation on days like yesterday when he scores twice against a major opponent away from home. The situation is only made more emotive because in the case of Lampard, a favourite of the supporters, he is also 10 goals away from equalling Bobby Tambling's record of 202 goals for the club.
These partings are never easy and Chelsea are not the kind of club where you could imagine a key player making a comfortable move into the margins, as Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs have effected at Manchester United. It is a personal view that the great players are best served leaving on a high and, if that is what this season delivers for Lampard, then it could be the ideal time to go.
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