Theo Walcott: Injured, pelted by coins and out of the World Cup... so what happens now?
Arsenal forward's season ended after suffering a cruciate ligament injury
The last time we saw Theo Walcott he was exiting the Emirates on a stretcher, cheery grin on his face, treating the Tottenham fans to the famous “two-nil” gesture and reaping for his trouble first a hail of coins and then the love of the home support, who threw scarves in appreciation.
It was one of the season’s memorable moments, an unscripted exchange in the buttoned-down world of modern football where players are told that they must take stick but not give it back. It encapsulated the great north London rivalry and, as Walcott reflects on that FA Cup tie eight weeks later, he says that Spurs-supporting friends have admitted that if the tables were turned, and it had been one of their players, they would “have loved it”.
The Walcott who showed up at 8am sharp on Friday at Arsenal’s training ground was as bright and breezy as ever, walking with a limp but delighted that the brace was removed from his left leg a few days ago. Walking is “easier” he says, but his rehabilitation still involves long days working in the pool while his team-mates are out on the training pitches plotting Arsenal’s title challenge.
Two days after he left the Emirates pitch on a stretcher, Walcott went for a scan and was told the bad news. He had ruptured his cruciate ligament. The season was over. He would miss for the third time in his career the chance to play in a World Cup finals. He is still only 24 but has packed enough highs and lows in to last a lifetime. “The injury didn’t really seem too much at the time,” he says. “I did hear a pop, but as you can tell by my reaction afterwards, I didn’t think it was serious.”
When the adrenalin wore off and the extent of the damage was known, he was operated on by the surgeon Andy Williams seven weeks ago. He is not putting a date on his return but you only need to spend time in his company to know he is, as they say, in a good place. The “silver lining” of missing the World Cup, he says, will be that he can be present when his wife Mel gives birth to their first child, due in May.
As for that moment on the stretcher, does he regret his gesture to the Spurs fans at the Emirates for the FA Cup third round tie? “No, not at all. All the stewards and the doctors were getting stuff peppered at them even before [the gesture]. Me and Tottenham? We always have that banter. They do it to me, I do it to them. It’s just a bit of fun, really. I have seen some Tottenham fans since then and they have said if it was one of their players they would have loved it.”
Was it true that two of the stretcher-bearers were Spurs fans? “Yeah! They were saying: ‘Theo, can you just stop it now!’ I will have to treat them to some cupcakes or something. I did stop eventually. As soon as I got to the Arsenal fans and they were throwing scarves, I stopped.”
There have been some difficult moments. Telling his father Don, as proud a parent as you are likely to meet, was one. But this is not a tale of sadness. Rather, he has been touched by the “tens of thousands” of messages of support he has received, many of them collated into a book for him by Arsenal. Walcott has never lost the boyish cheerfulness he had as a 16-year-old signing at Arsenal, and it is clear now that it has become one of his greatest strengths.
Theo Walcott at Arsenal's London Colney training ground on Friday “I don’t think anyone expected it [the severity of the injury] at all. Obviously, there was a lot of damage there but we didn’t know what the extent of it was. Yeah, it probably did hit me quite hard. It would hit anybody hard. But that’s gone now. I can’t do anything to change that scenario now. I tend not to think about that day really.”
Later he relates with wonder a story he has been told by the medical department about Giovanni van Bronckhorst, who had the same injury and turned up the next morning demanding to train. He required sitting down and gently dissuading.
That was never on the agenda with Walcott. There will be no rushing back early. No corners cut. He is taking the chance to work on his physique and says, only half-joking, he will come back “an absolute tank”.
“There’s always people worse off. I think there’s no point being all negative about it. You’ve got to be positive. You never know when you’re day’s up, I suppose. You want to be positive coming into every day and it will go quicker. That’s how I think about it, anyway.”
Last season Walcott was the club’s top goalscorer. This year if Arsenal do win their first title in a decade he will, as he points out with a smile, just about qualify for a medal with his 13 league appearances. All the same, he quite enjoys watching matches. He is pleased for his old friend and former Southampton team-mate Adam Lallana, whose progress with England will undeniably be smoother for Walcott’s absence.
Remarkably, Walcott is Arsenal’s longest-serving player, along with the perennially injured Abou Diaby, who was also signed in January 2006. Walcott has been in the spotlight for so much of his young life that there is nothing that fazes him.
“There’s still going to be many more great years to come. I know that,” he says. “[My career] just shows how much I’ve actually achieved at such a young age. And the pressure I’ve had to deal with as well. I’ve bounced back before and it’s made me stronger as well. It’s amazing to reflect on what has happened so far and I really wouldn’t change anything.”
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