Walcott backed to join the England greats

Gilberto salutes cameo kid with world at his feet
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The Independent Online

The ritual is becoming a familiar one at the Emirates Stadium. Some time during the second half a roar greets the appearance from the plush Arsenal dugout seats of a neat little lad who jogs purposefully down the touchline. "The-o, The-o," goes the chant as he heads for the corner flag, acknowledging the cheers with polite applause, because it would be rude not to.

Theo Walcott is no rude boy, though he is in football terms a wide boy. And in the last quarter of an hour of the game, the roars increase as Freddie Ljungberg or Robin van Persie or Alexander Hleb make way for him, a turbo-charged substitute taking his place down either the left or right flank. It hardly seems to matter which. Against Aston Villa, with Arsenal facing ignominious defeat in the Emirates' first Premiership match, it was the left; immediately unsettling the opposing defence with a pacy run, he soon fashioned an equalising goal, unselfishly chipping to the far post for Gilberto Silva to score. "I thought he was brilliant," was the generous tribute of Villa's manager, Martin O'Neill.

Four days later and he was becoming Arsenal's youngest-ever player in European compet-ition with another late appearance, this time setting up the winning goal for Mathieu Flamini in the last minute. Last Tuesday he was to be seen flying along the right wing for the last five minutes against Porto, but with no need for heroics, Arsenal strolling by that stage to a 2-0 victory.

A goal would have been a bonus, enabling him to become the youngest scorer in the short history of the Champions' League by a single day. A fortnight ago he reached the grand old age of seventeen and a half; already England's most youthful international, he now has until the start of February to take another of Wayne Rooney's records, as most juvenile goalscorer. Yet records do not seem to bother him. "Trophies, that's what I really want," he says.

Arsenal are also taking the longer view, Arsène Wenger specifically insisting that Walcott, who is due to appear for England's Under-21s against Germany on Friday, should not play more than one game in a week. It was a trap that Southampton had fallen into before selling him in January, prompting the paternal Arsenal manager to send him on an immediate holiday. After last Tuesday's game, the equally callow Cesc Fabregas was to be heard praising the club's careful grooming in his own case, and Gilberto, who captained the team early in the season, was keen to stress the importance of not overburdening Walcott with too much football or expectation.

"Arsène has been very careful with him, not put a lot of pressure on him, because he's a young boy," he said. "If you put a lot of pressure on him it's not going to be good for him. I think he can handle it. But he's only 17, he needs time to improve and to grow. The more he trains with us and plays he will grow in confidence and very soon he will be ready to start a game and play confidently like he does in training. He looks very good in training and I think you've even seen at times when he plays for us, he's very confident when he gets the ball. Myself and other experienced players and Arsène talk to him a lot, and he listens to what we say. He's a very good player and a nice guy."

Those warnings about great expectations notwithstanding, those who work with Walcott every day have more reason than most to acknowledge his potential and Gilberto admits: "I think he can be one of the greatest players in England." Having been to two World Cups (and won one of them), the amiable Brazilian also believes that Walcott's experience in Germany last summer can only help him.

"It was good for him, at his age, to have the opportunity to join a squad in the World Cup. He was there. He doesn't need to feel down because he didn't play, the only thing he needs to have in his mind now is that he was there because he has the quality to play in the England team."

So far, there has been only one chance to prove it, as a substitute against Hungary last May. Friendlies in November or Feb-ruary could offer the next one.

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