Arsenal to sign £12m Walcott 'within next 24 hours'

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The race for the most promising teenage English footballer appeared at an end yesterday when Arsène Wenger said Arsenal expected to sign Southampton's 16-year-old striker Theo Walcott "within 24 hours" and bring to a close six months of negotiations for a player also courted by Chelsea, Tottenham and Manchester United.

The Arsenal manager has been reluctant to discuss the player who has been touted as a possible successor to Thierry Henry but yesterday he said that he was confident of making a signing that is likely to cost his club £5m initially and then a further £7m based on Walcott's achievements. The delay in signing him has come from Southampton while they try to strengthen their own squad - they yesterday narrowly missed out on signing the Stoke City right-back John Halls.

"We are very heavily in the race [for Walcott]," Wenger said, "but nothing is done and, as long as nothing is signed, you cannot talk about it. However, we are hoping to get a decision in the next 24 hours."

There still has to be resolution between the two clubs on whether Walcott will sign for Arsenal and then return to Southampton on loan to help them in their push for promotion from the Championship this year. The main concern for Walcott's advisers is the regularity with which he has played for Southampton this season - and Wenger agrees that, at such a young age, the player should not be pushed too hard.

Southampton chairman Rupert Lowe met Halls on Wednesday but the player chose Reading for £250,000. Southampton are keen to have new signings in place before they announce the departure of Walcott.

Thierry Henry has told the Arsenal board to match his promise to sign a new contract this summer by keeping Ashley Cole at the club and investing in the team. The 28-year-old admitted he considered leaving Arsenal and now wants the club to become one of the "bigger spenders", having signed Auxerre midfielder Vassiriki Abou Diaby and Monaco striker Emmanuel Adebayor.

Henry said: "I asked myself a lot of questions at Christmas. It's important Arsenal have the same sporting ambition as me. Deep down I would love to win the Champions' League.

"We have started [on a new contract], but very briefly. I don't know when we will resume negotiations. We're at the first stage.

"I don't think we're in the same category as other clubs. If we're talking about money, Arsenal is not one of the bigger spenders. It's important [to keep Cole]. Pat [Vieira's] departure did not make things any easier. The board is there to build a competitive team."

Wenger revealed that Cole injured a thigh muscle during his return to action in the 7-0 win over Middlesbrough and is expected to be missing for about two weeks.