Arsène Wenger heralded a "new era" for Arsenal Football Club in his programme notes ahead of Saturday's draw with Aston Villa, so it was fitting that Theo Walcott turned the game with a glorious debut cameo.
When the former Southampton star stepped off the substitute's bench at Emirates Stadium after 73 minutes, his introduction was greeted with rapturous applause by the home faithful. They had waited seven long months to catch a glimpse of the lightening-fast young striker.
And after the 17-year-old's cross had led to Arsenal's equalising goal to earn them an opening-day point, Wenger discussed Walcott's inclusion in England's World Cup squad earlier this summer - and purred over his forward's potential.
"He was a little bit happy for having been there but also frustrated for not having played," he said.
"But he's the sort of player who will always bring something to the team when he plays and I have always felt that.
Wenger also expressed his disenchantment with the criticism aimed at his young charge despite his lack of playing time. He dispelled rumours that he recommended England take Walcott to Germany but pointed out that playing against Aston Villa is just as difficult as facing some international sides.
"I think the criticisms he has been given have been harsh," he said. "It's a lot of pressure for a very 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 very young but people want him to be a star in England.
"I never said he should definitely go to the World Cup, I just said that I would be happy if he did go. Was he ready? He is playing against Aston Villa and that is no harder than playing against Costa Rica or Ecuador or a side like that. Sven [Goran Eriksson] decided to take him and then he didn't decide to play him. That's an issue for him and not for me. Theo shouldn't be criticised for that. He will also get much better. He's a very good listener."
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21 Aug 2006