Wenger's 'biggest gamble' lures Walcott from Chelsea's clutches

Standing at the back of the room listening to Wenger yesterday will be an occasion that Walcott's parents, Don and Lynn, will never forget, but it had already been quite a journey to get there. Chelsea, Manchester United, Tottenham and Fulham all competed for the signature of their son and Wenger moved to ease the pressure on Arsenal's new No 32 by claiming that the extraordinary size of the transfer fee paid to Southampton was not Walcott's "fault".

After all the players that Arsenal have lost out on since Roman Abramovich's arrival at Chelsea in 2003, this was Wenger's day to remind the rest of English football that he still has a club, and a squad, that fires the imagination of the best players in the country. He pointed to the profile of his players' ages - with so many between 18 and 22 - as the key to persuading Walcott that he would be better placed to choose Arsenal over Stamford Bridge.

"The decision of the boy was not a question of money because if it was money I would say the player would have ended up at Chelsea," Wenger said. "But [Chelsea's involvement] pushed us as far as we could go."

Instead of encountering a family who were concerned with money, Wenger said that he discovered a young man, in Walcott, who held up Thierry Henry as a "role model" and knew, in Wenger's words, that "young players feel they get an opportunity at Arsenal - and that is certainly a decisive factor."

Wenger said: "It is a big gamble but I hope that kind of pressure is not placed on the player but on me. He is not responsible for the kind of money that they have paid. I am responsible for that and I hope I will stand under this kind of pressure, not the boy. It would be unfair - it's not his fault we have paid so much money.

"When you are so young you feel 'If I go there and I am good enough I will play'. In football it is always down to fact, you count the number of players aged between 18 and 22 here and the number of players between 18 and 22 who play anywhere else, you will see the decision is easy to make."

Walcott, who comes from Compton, a small town in Berkshire, and excels at cricket, cookery and art as well as being able to run the 100 metres in 11.5 seconds, will not be able to sign professional terms until his 17th birthday on 16 March. There is what Wenger describes as a "moral agreement" with Southampton to pay the Championship club more than the normal compensation due for an academy player although that did not stop the South Coast club's chairman, Rupert Lowe, from attacking the system that had allowed them to lose Walcott.

Despite having negotiated a record price for the player, principally on the goodwill of the Walcott family who could have removed their son from the club, Lowe said he had "made the best of a very unsatisfactory situation" and was "bitterly disappointed" at the player's move. Presumably he was less disappointed than Swindon Town who lost Walcott to Southampton four years ago but for the considerably smaller transfer fee of £5,000.

Wenger said: "We had a moral agreement with Southampton to sign a professional contract and the family and the agent wanted to respect that. I think that was right. They had the agreement and we did not want to push [Southampton] out [of] the agreement. We wouldn't like to have done that because we respect the system in England where we have done things the right way. We cannot take one side when we are in a trial [Ashley Cole tapping-up scandal] when people don't respect the rules and [then] us try to turn the rules around."

Walcott has been told by Wenger to take a long holiday to recover from the exertions of 23 appearances and five goals for the Saints this season although yesterday he said that he was preparing to turn his mobile phone back on and answer the messages from friends he left behind at school just months ago.

"Money's never been an option for me so I don't pay much attention to that," Walcott said. "I like the youth set-up here and I think they get a chance to play. It's all about my development as a youngster and just to train with world-class players is what I'm most looking forward to."

Walcott still regards his goal in the FA Youth Cup last February against Arsenal as one of his favourites although Wenger said yesterday that he had followed the progress of the England under-17 youth international for a year before that. Wenger said he had left a senior training session to watch Walcott play against an Arsenal youth team two years ago and knew "after 20 minutes" the calibre of the player he was watching.

"I have signed many English players - they have not all come off," Wenger said. "That's why I say it is always a gamble. When you sign a player you believe he will do it and you give him the maximum opportunities to achieve his potential. You can never make a player successful, you can help a player to want to be successful. The biggest part comes from him."

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