This story first appeared in the March 2016 edition of the Arsenal Magazine.
Name: Theo Walcott
Squad number: 14
Born: Middlesex, March 16, 1989
Joined Arsenal: from Southamptonon January 20, 2006
Previous clubs: Southampton
Arsenal debut: v Aston Villa (h) League, August 19, 2006 (drew 1-1)
First Arsenal goal: v Chelsea (n) League Cup, February 25, 2007 (lost 2-1)
Arsenal honours: FA Cup winner 2014, 2015, Community Shield winner 2015
England caps: 42 (8 goals)
Much like Theo, Marc Overmars provided Arsenal with a goalscoring outlet from out wide. Marc made 142 appearances for the Gunners between 1997 and 2000, scoring 42 times and providing many memorable moments.
It was Marc – nicknamed Speedy Marc by Arsène Wenger – who scored the crucial winner at Old Trafford in March 1998, as Arsenal overturned a 12-point gap at the end of February to beat Manchester United to the league title.
Just like Theo, Marc also scored the opening goal in an FA Cup final at Wembley, netting later that season in the 2-0 victory over Newcastle United, which in turn gave Arsenal a first ‘double’ since 1971. It’s not really a surprise then, to learn that Marc has particularly pleasant memories of his time in north London.
“At Arsenal we had a team who I was lucky to be involved in,” he begins. “We had a famous back four but we always said back five because we had Winterburn, Keown, Adams, Dixon, as well as Steve Bould. For me Steve Bould and Keown were fantastic in the centre.
We had a fantastic mix of English players and some foreigners who delivered extra as well. In that period we were playing and feeling like we were unbeatable. That’s what we had every week. When we went to any team away, we got off the coach and said, ‘Okay, we have to destroy them and go safely back to London’. We also had that at Highbury, the feeling that we couldn’t lose.
“I don’t think we lost for one or one and a half years at home. It was the best period of my life as a footballer and also with my family. We always played at 3pm on a Saturday afternoon and we knew that if we had a good result we could enjoy the evening.”
Marc was a joy to watch, his lightning pace, vast array of skill and intelligent movement off the ball causing plenty of problems for right backs all over the country. Also known as the Flying Dutchman, Marc points towards Arsenal’s “excellent balance” as a key reason for helping him to thrive.
“If I look back at the team, we had Ray Parlour who did extremely well,” Marc remembers. “He delivered so much power and work- rate so that I could be more risky up front because Ray was doing a lot of defensive work, and that’s the same for Petit and Vieira.
“They let me play a bit higher up which is why I could score more goals. The balance of the team was excellent.”
To see the club growing was also great. From 38,000 at Highbury – I always looked when we were warming up to see how many people were there – to see the development from a big club to a massive club was greatMarc Overmars
Marc believes that Theo’s nationality, as well as his ability, is also a benefit to Arsenal. “Well in an English team, it doesn’t matter if it’s Arsenal, Chelsea or United, you have to get a base of the English players,” he explains.
“That’s my opinion, because then it’s good to have that connection with your supporters and the area around you.” Walcott has scored plenty of goals during his 10 years at the club, in fact he is the top scorer in the squad with 82 goals, including some hugely important strikes.
Marc too netted some crucial goals, and remembers his famous effort against Manchester United as an example of why anticipation is a key attribute for any goalscoring winger.
“I remember the goal against United because it came from Petit’s pass. I knew that Anelka could jump very well and it’s important for a winger to always create his own chances. You have to think, ‘Where can I be dangerous? Where can I be involved in a goal?’, so you always have to run.
“Eight times out of 10 you will run for nothing, but two times you can score. It was a good feeling to score against United as well because I always liked to prepare for the big games and show the world that I was the best in the big games. I remember I took it on my chest first-time, and it came onto my left foot for me to score. It turned the title race in that moment.”
Marc left for Barcelona in 2000, becoming the most expensive Dutch player of all time. He spent four years in Catalonia but was forced to retire in 2004 due to a persistent knee injury.
A brief return with his first team, Go Ahead Eagles, followed in 2008/09 before Marc hung up his boots for good at the end of that season. Nowadays, he forms part of an elite group of ex-players in senior management positions at former club Ajax. Marc is the club’s director of football, a role he is very much enjoying.
“Every morning you talk with the coaches, you go into their offices and drink coffee to see what’s going on,” he explains. “You can ask about players and why they might not be performing well. All those kinds of things help. Frank de Boer and Dennis Bergkamp have an office in the same building as me, and then five yards to the left is Jaap Stam, our reserve- team coach, then my office is 10 yards away.
“There are quick lines of communication. If there is something going on, then we can walk in very easily. It’s important to know what’s going on in both teams because in the under- 21s, the young players are coming through.”
So how would Marc sum up his time at Arsenal? “To get the double and to go driving into the city on the big double-decker buses, to see all the people and the excitement outside is a memory I would love to re-live if I could turn back time.
“To see the club growing was also great. From 38,000 at Highbury – I always looked when we were warming up to see how many people were there – to see the development from a big club to a massive club was great."
Five moments that defined Theo’s career
August 19, 2006
Although Theo had to wait one day short of seven months to make his Arsenal debut, his substitute appearance on the opening day of the 2006/07 season was worth holding out for.
Arsenal’s first competitive match at Emirates Stadium was in danger of going badly wrong when Aston Villa took the lead in the 54th minute – but then Theo emerged from the bench in the 72nd minute, replacing Freddie Ljungberg, and made an instant impact.
With little outward display of nerves, he immediately launched a move that ended up with Emmanuel Eboue hitting the bar, and soon afterwards, he lofted a cross from the left that fell to Gilberto to crash home the equaliser.
Arsène Wenger leapt to the youngster’s defence after a summer in which he had been criticised for being taken to the World Cup by England – and not played.
“It’s a lot of pressure for a young man to deal with. I can accept players being criticised if they play badly but to criticise them when they don’t even play is harsh. He’s the sort of player who will always bring something to the team when he plays and I have always felt that. He will also get much better. He’s a very good listener.”
February 25, 2007
Theo’s first goal for the club couldn’t have come at a much better time – in the 12th minute of the League Cup final against Chelsea to give the Gunners a 1-0 lead – but sadly it wasn’t to prove decisive.
Arsenal, with an average age of 21, were fielding the youngest team ever to take part in a major English cup final, yet they started well, with Cesc Fabregas pulling the strings in midfield and Julio Baptista forcing John Terry into a last- ditch block. Then Walcott, playing on the right of midfield, exchanged passes with Abou Diaby from a corner and side-footed the ball past Petr Cech to open the scoring.
Chelsea weren’t behind for long, though, as Didier Drogba beat the offside trap to equalise in the 20th minute. It got worse when the Ivorian scored again with six minutes to go. Despite the defeat Theo had cause to be proud of his own performance, especially considering that after the game Arsène Wenger revealed he had been struggling with a persistent shoulder injury.
“It was not just important to score,” he added. “Theo is at a period in his career when it is just as important to have a good performance. You can score and play badly but he had a very good performance and scored a good goal.”
Hat-trick v Newcastle United
December 29, 2012
Although it wasn’t his first hat-trick for the club, Theo himself has said it’s his best – so far. The first came against Blackpool in August 2010, followed by another in the crazy 7-5 League Cup win over Reading in October 2012. He didn’t have to wait long for his third in the 7-3 win over Newcastle United that December.
Theo, playing as the central striker, opened the scoring when he latched on to Lukas Podolski’s through ball and fired low past Tim Krul. Yet Newcastle came from behind to level the scores three times after further goals from Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Podolski, and the match was on a knife edge at 3-3 when Theo collected Kieran Gibbs’ low cross in the area with his back to goal, spun and fired in his second.
The best was yet to come when, after two goals from sub Olivier Giroud, Walcott raced in from the left, beat four disheartened Newcastle defenders, slipped and got up again to complete a remarkable treble by chipping the ball over Krul from the edge of the six-yard box.
“People have been saying about the United performance earlier this season was my best game,” Theo says. “But as a striker I like to score goals so I will say either my hat-trick against Newcastle or maybe the one at Reading away.
“I will always remember that because it was a mad game too, you will never have a game like that again. Also it was my local team, so it was a good moment, but I will say the Newcastle one just shades it.”
Injury v Tottenham Hotspur
January 4, 2014
Of all the injuries Theo Walcott has suffered over the past 10 years, the ruptured anterior cruciate ligament he picked up against Tottenham Hotspur in early 2014 was perhaps the cruelest of all.
He’d started the season with a string of assists before missing two months with an abdominal injury, and then come back in an even richer vein of form, netting doubles against both Manchester City and West Ham United in December. So it was especially tough on Theo when he went down challenging Spurs’ Danny Rose in the closing stages of an FA Cup game the Gunners were leading 2-0.
The scoreline, of course, led to a famous riposte to the away fans who were goading him as he was stretchered off, but it would be a year before he started another match, against Hull City in January 2015.
The consolation was fatherhood, as Finley James Walcott was born on April 10, 2014. “That kept me going,” Theo said later during his rehabilitation.
“A lot of people miss the early stages of the lives of their children and I’m not going to miss that at all. That’s a massive boost – it’s a silver lining and it keeps me going. It’s nice to be around because a lot of the time players are away."
A Cup final goal
May 30, 2015
The dramatic 2014 FA Cup final win over Hull City had been bittersweet for Theo. Still injured from the third round win over Tottenham, he was certainly pleased for his team-mates, but it can’t have been easy when he was FaceTimed from the Wembley pitch during the post-match celebrations.
He made up for it a year later. Having been eased back into first-team action after 10 months out and used sparingly during the second half of the 2014/15 season, Arsène Wenger handed him a start up front in the final league game of the season, and Theo duly took out his frustrations on West Bromwich Albion by firing a 32-minute first-half hat-trick.
Six days later, the Englishman retained his place in the starting line-up for the FA Cup final against Aston Villa. Arsène Wenger wanted to use Theo’s pace to stretch the opposition’s back line and, with Santi Cazorla and Mesut Ozil running the midfield, it worked a treat. The Gunners dominated from the kick-off and, after seeing one shot blocked by Kieran Richardson, Walcott lashed home the opening goal from Alexis’ knockdown. The rest is history.
“He’s now at an age where it’s very interesting,” said the boss after the game. “He has experience, he’s at his physical peak and it’s a time to stay with us.” Here’s hoping for many more trophies, Theo.
Arsène Wenger on...Theo Walcott
On when he first saw him play...
It was in the FA Youth Cup with Southampton. I saw him in the final, he played on the left side and I liked his movement off the ball. A player like him is very difficult to find and Theo’s movement off the ball and intelligence is really his brand and are part of his characteristics. He came here in 2006 and straight away he was selected for the World Cup in Germany without having played a Premier League game.
On how he has improved...
Theo is very intelligent. He always had pace and his movement off the ball was always perfect. I think he is much more conscious now of teamwork and he has improved as well in his finishing. He is absolutely deadly compared to 10 years ago. He needed many chances to score a goal, but today he can finish very well.
His final ball and his technique are much better. He has moved forward a lot in the recent years. I like that we live in a society where people always want new faces and new names, but we forget sometimes the loyalty, cohesion and the long-term phase that is needed in a player to be successful at the club. You need players through the generations and I’m very pleased with him.
His strengths as a player...
Theo’s movement off the ball is great, so he depends a lot on the service he gets. He has improved his team attitude and tactical discipline a lot. After that it depends a lot on if we dominate the game and the quality of the balls we get. He is very important in the way he goes behind the defenders.
That is a quality you don’t find often anymore. It gives us something that is very important in our offensive game. This season I feel he has been very important to us and shown he has developed well.
He is very intelligent and very motivated as well. He’s been here for 10 years, that shows as well that he loves Arsenal and I’m convinced he will give us much more in the next five years than the last five because he is a player who is always moving forward and trying to do better. He has a very positive attitude.
The verdict from...
Harry Redknapp gave Theo Walcott his first-team debut when he was manager at Southampton, in the Championship at the beginning of the 2005/06 season.
Redknapp’s memories of the youngster go way back to his pre-teen years though...
??I first saw Theo when he was 12 years of age, because they were making a film at Southampton following some of the kids’ progress.
Mike Osman was involved in the film and they were following the kids around and one was Theo. He was taking part in a little training session and he caught my eye straight away – Theo was clearly one to watch. Theo was playing in the youth team and he was simply outstanding. He played in the Youth Cup final versus Ipswich in 2005.
The next season, I gave him his debut for the first-team. He had come on as sub a few times, then I gave him his first start, away to Leeds, when he was 16 – and he was pretty much unplayable. Theo absolutely ran them ragged. I played him through the middle and he was up against a lad called Sean Gregan. Sean was a midfielder playing at centre half on that occasion and he was a very aggressive guy to face – so it was a big test for Theo.
But Theo was far too quick for him – in fact, Leeds ended up subbing Gregan after 50 or 60 ??minutes to put him out of his misery. The fact was he could not get anywhere near Theo.
Even at that age Theo had so much pace he could be unplayable at times.
He played the whole 90 minutes and scored our goal – his first in senior football. He stayed in the team and scored in the next two games too. From that moment I first saw him, I knew he was more than good enough to make it.