Can Theo gatecrash the World Cup?

Wenger beats rivals to win race for a wondrous young talent he is desperate to develop
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The Independent Football

It was at a lunch late last year that Arsène Wenger, the Arsenal manager, delivered an astonishing verdict as to just how highly he rates Theo Walcott. The 16-year-old, Wenger declared, his enthusiasm bubbling over, could become the best player in the world. And he could do so within five years.

Indeed Wenger apparently believes that the lightning-quick Southampton striker is so precociously, naturally talented that he could even gatecrash his way into England's World Cup squad. The squad for this summer in Germany, that is. He is, Wenger contends, that good.

There was one important qualification to his claims. All this could happen if Walcott was an Arsenal player, working under Wenger's tutelage, training on the immaculate pitches at London Colney and under the regime that he has so passionately, single-mindedly developed. Working alongside Dennis Bergkamp, Robert Pires and - above all - Walcott's hero, Thierry Henry. It is Henry that the boy has been anointed by Wenger eventually to replace. The former Southampton manager Dave Merrington, who nurtured Matthew Le Tissier, describes Walcott as a "carbon copy of a young Henry", and both started as wingers.

It was a powerful picture that Wenger drew. But, more than that, the eagerness, the schoolboy excitement that this most accomplished, most studious of managers displayed was irrepressible. His keenness to sign - and develop - the player proved undeniable.

And it crystallised in the minds of all those who were present that Arsenal was the best place to take, and properly nurture, a talent that, along with Barcelona's Lionel Messi, is undeniably judged as the best teenager in Europe. Many seasoned observers, although quiet at present, rate Walcott above Wayne Rooney simply because he has what Wenger described as "his electric pace" to make a decisive difference.

And so Walcott, his family and his advisers have shunned the many millions more offered by Chelsea, who crassly said they would top anything from any other club in the world to land him. And then some. The travails of Shaun Wright-Phillips are a lesson there. Walcott is only the latest in a number of talents to balk at the vulgar antics at Stamford Bridge despite the undeniable charm of Jose Mourinho, and his impressive achievements.

Walcott has also turned his back on the European Cup winners Liverpool, whom he supports and whose manager, Rafael Benitez, was still briefing, off the record, to journalists on Friday that they were confident of landing the player.

Tottenham were also in the running, and their head coach, Martin Jol, with his commitment to developing young English talent and his sheer enthusiasm and charisma, had made an impres-sive pitch. But they, too, have lost out despite a substantial bid.

It was only belatedly that Manchester United woke up to what was happening. A call last week was, however, fruitless. Walcott's heart was set on Arsenal and United had already missed the boat. No, the reply came, a meeting with Sir Alex Ferguson was not necessary. Walcott is set to sign for Arsenal and wants to commit his long-term future to the club. A deal is expected to be announced as early as tomorrow.

It is some coup for Wenger, who walked into his media briefing on Friday lunchtime sporting the broadest, most unstoppable, of grins. For a man who is naturally circumspect about transfers it was astonishing to hear him speak so openly about the week's dealings, especially as they were not all concluded.

"We've won the lottery," were his opening words as he sat down to announce the signing of Abou Diaby, a dynamic young French midfielder whom he described as the new Patrick Vieira. And then there was the 6ft 3in Togo striker Emmanuel Adebayor, the new Nwankwo Kanu in Wenger's eyes, whose signing was later confirmed, plus Henry's successor, Walcott. In one swoop Wenger has reshaped Arsenal's future and given more power and presence to his squad.

No fees have been published for any of the signings, but it appears that £2.5m, £7m and £5m have been spent respectively, with Diaby and Walcott attracting at least twice that initial outlay should they fulfil the rich potential that has been attached to them. It will cost Arsenal the thick end of £22m should things work out as they desire. And that, also, is in one transfer window from a man who traditionally passes on the opportunity to buy at this time of year and who has only previously acquired one player - Jose Antonio Reyes - in January. Even that was because Wenger had to fend off Real Madrid's very real interest.

Instead, and with the new stadium at Ashburton Grove to move into next season, Arsenal are suddenly awash with energy, potential and the kind of raw physical impetus that they have appeared to lack of late. A quarter of a new team has been signed, which will go a long way to appeasing Henry, who claims it is ambition on the pitch, not money in the bank, that will define whether he signs a new deal.

Walcott's sudden arrival is astonishing. This is, after all, a player who has not played in the Premiership, first kicked a football just six years ago, left school only last June, and cannot sign professional forms until his 17th birthday in March. He has only started 12 Championship games, and made 22 appearances overall this season, scoring five goals.

Walcott, after completing his GCSEs, has been training full-time for just six months and is still paid the standard wage of £90 a week. He spends part of the week in digs with other scholars, the rest at his family's home. Everton, it should be remembered, did not sell Rooney until he was almost 19 and made an initial £20m.

Yet Walcott is slightly different. His advisers feel that he has already been overplayed and that the burden on him is exceptional. He leads the line in a division where defenders are uncompromising - to be frank, they kick Walcott - and the balance of playing and gaining experience has to be weighed against the lack of opportunity for ironing out the flaws in his technique.

Not once this season has Walcott had an afternoon session to address some of those flaws. He himself, again sounding like Henry, says he needs to improve his heading and his left foot. His advisers know he has to work on his awareness, especially on the ball, and his technique.

The arrival of George Burley as manager proved too late. He has withdrawn Walcott, listened to the concerns about overplaying him, but the decision over his future was already made, and even those at Southampton privately admit it may be for the best, with Burley unable to resist calling the boy "a genius".

Walcott's family have, for the past 10 years, lived in Compton, a village in the heart of rural Berkshire's horseracing country. His sporting ancestry includes Sir Clyde Walcott, the West Indies Test cricket star of the 1940s and 1950s. Walcott, like Henry, began as a winger. His mates have nicknamed him "Tiger" because he looks like Tiger Woods. But, as of tomorrow, he will be his own man entirely. A whole new sporting phenomenon is about to be unleashed.

WONDER WALCOTT

"I like the timing of his runs, his determined attitude, the fact that he can play in different positions up front; that he is calm in front of goal. And he has electric pace"

Arsène Wenger, Arsenal Manager

"He is very like Thierry Henry in style already. The only question is if he has the mental strength to cope with the demands at the top level"

Dave Merrington, ex-Saints Manager

"He's got a lovely family, and he's not a bighead"

Harry Redknapp, Portsmouth Manager

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