Courted over by Tottenham, Chelsea and Liverpool before signing with the Gunners on his 17th birthday; Heir to Thierry Henry’s legendary no. 14 shirt; The winner of the BBC’s Young Sports Personality of the Year; The youngest player to score a hat-trick for England.
As Theo Walcott approaches football’s best-before age of 30, the glory and, in hindsight, the pinnacle, all came far too early.
Walcott is one of football’s few players to stay loyal to his club for over a decade, amass a centenary of goals, and still be the subject of discontent.
When he first arrived at Arsenal the excitement was palpable and the baby-faced 17 year-old oozed boundless potential, Yet, as the years have passed, his promise has faded and the patience of Arsenal’s fans has long worn thin.
Sadly, that’s also been the case for his suitors. Everton and West Ham have perennially flirted with taking on the burden of his six-figure wage bracket but a move has never materialised and Walcott’s languished on the sidelines.
Will this finally be the season he fulfils his potential? Is it simply a case of disillusionment? The questions are customarily asked at the beginning of each season and judgement has always teetered in limbo.
After the Gunners’ transfer debacle this summer, where they failed to capture Thomas Lemar from Monaco and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain departed to Liverpool, it appeared that Walcott had been granted one final opportunity for redemption.
Yet, he’s been restricted to only a handful of Premier League appearances this season and even a shadow of his former self would consider his outings this year as lacklustre.
Arsene Wenger’s forbearing belief had in fact been exhausted before the season even begun.
That the largely innocuous Alex Iwobi has continued to start ahead of him, despite only producing a solitary goal and assist in 12 games, is a testament to that. No longer in limbo, the once inconclusive judgement has now been well established.
To Walcott’s defence, just when he teased of reaching his full potential, he was stricken by injury and his career has stuttered ever since.
Five years ago, in the 2012-2013 season, he was one of Arsenal’s star players contributing 21 goals and 16 assists. The following season, just as his great form looked set to continue, he suffered an abdominal injury that kept him out for two months.
Almost as soon as he returned he ruptured his ACL, keeping him out for a further six months. Those injuries led to him missing the 2014 World Cup and ultimately marked the stagnation and subsequent deterioration of his career.
Following in the footsteps of Thierry Henry was always a heavy burden. He shared his blistering speed and craved the same transformation from winger to striker.
However, after years of publicly expressing his desire to lead Arsenal’s frontline, when Wenger, albeit reluctantly, handed him that opportunity, Walcott fired blanks. Bullied back onto and into the wings, he’s waited there ever since.
The years of exasperation have visibly taken their toll on his confidence. Where he was once lethal and intrepid, today it’s more like anxious and tepid.
Whether he can fit in at a lower-table side remains to be seen. The Premier League, more than ever, requires a winger who tirelessly tracks back and is strong in the tackle.
It’s one of the pitfalls which initially led to Walcott being usurped by Iwobi and a hinderance which most sides simply can’t afford.
It’s not to say he hasn’t had some glorious moments in red and white. His two goals in the stunning 5-2 comeback against Tottenham, his opening goal in the FA Cup final versus Aston Villa.
Who could forget his 2-0 salute to the Spurs supporters as he was stretchered off the field with that torn cruciate ligament. But sadly, it’s the aura of frustration that will follow Walcott upon his departure.
Too happy to coast. Not enough ambition, desire, bite.
Southampton are odds-on to come in for their former starlet this January and Wenger has remained ominously vague on the topic.
There’s no doubt that, if he is to return to form, Walcott could play a major role at any club outside the top six.
At the height of his prowess his runs behind the defensive line were virtually unstoppable, he’s captained the Gunners on many occasions and brings invaluable years of top-level experience.
His time at Arsenal, which has seen him become the club’s longest-serving current player, has seen him both celebrated and castigated.
Now, it’s finally time for Walcott to move on. A resurrection of form is far from improbable and, however unlikely, ten Premier League goals in the second half of the season could even see some calling for his inclusion in the England squad.
At 29, he’s far from his final hurrah and a timely departure from comfortable surroundings may just be the jolt which rekindles his career.