It has been a memorable season for Theo Walcott.
From having to be content with ‘super sub’ status at the beginning of the campaign - against a backdrop of constant speculation over his long-term future - it wasn’t long before his steady supply of goals and eye-catching performances simply demanded a place in the starting line-up.
Goals from the bench against Southampton and West Ham in the Premier League were followed by an extraordinary hat-trick in the Capital One Cup win over Reading in late October, and he’s not looked back since.
Further goals followed against Schalke, Tottenham, Everton and Reading again before another hat-trick - this time against Newcastle at the Emirates - took his tally to 14 goals from just 11 starts. It was already his most prolific season for the Gunners, and we were still in 2012.
Yet all the time, the elephant in the room was the doubt over his future. Theo’s contract was due to expire at the end of the season, and the longer a new deal remained unsigned, the more anxious many Gooners grew of there being a positive resolution.
So the news - on January 18 - that England’s youngest-ever full international had indeed put pen to paper and committed himself to the Club was met with relief as well as delight among the fans. And with his future now secured, there’s a sense he can really get going. He scored in each of his next four games after signing the contract, and the win over Sunderland marked his 250th appearance for the Club. Although now in his seventh full season in north London, it’s probably worth remembering that he only turned 24 on March 16.
And the man himself is excited and invigorated by the next chapter in what has already been a hugely eventful career. As the player with more career appearances and goals for the Gunners than any other member of the squad, Theo is well aware of his senior status in the dressing room, and he is determined to become a leader and talisman over the next few years.
It is clear that he wants to take more responsibility on and off the pitch. He’s vowed to become an increasingly influential figure as the team step up their hunt for silverware in the coming seasons. And, as he reveals to the Arsenal Magazine, he might have some more responsibilities away from football in the not too distant future, too…
"I think the big thing this season is that I don’t ever want the games to end. I’m really enjoying every second of being out there"
Theo, you’re currently enjoying your best ever campaign in terms of goals and assists - what do you think has changed in your game this season?
I’m getting in more goalscoring situations, and I seem to be taking more of them too. So the goalscoring side has been even better. The last two years have been good for a winger in terms of goals, but this year has definitely stood out. I’ve just enjoyed scoring, creating chances for players and I’m staying fit, which is important as well.
What do you put the improvement down to?
I think the big thing this season is that I don’t ever want the games to end. I’m really enjoying every second of being out there. I just enjoy every game. I love performing in front of the crowd, for my team-mates as well, and if I make a mistake I know to forget about it because something else will come up. So I don’t really think about mistakes too much anymore. That’s another side of it - not dwelling on something that’s happened previously in the game. Also I’m not thinking too much in front of goal, I’m just doing what comes naturally to me - that’s finishing, and it’s working so far anyway!
You seem to be playing with a lot of confidence…
Yeah, I feel like I can create opportunities - that even if I’m not in the game for a patch, I would be able to come up with something. I’ve learned more about the defensive side of the game and about formations over the years. I’ve also learned how to play with other players better, seeing what the strengths are of the players coming in and adapting to that. My dad recently said to me that I’m playing with a smile on my face, enjoying every minute, and that’s exactly right.
Your contract negotiations took a long time - how long was it exactly? Did they start last season?
Well I was always thinking about it, but I had the Euros last summer and I wanted to concentrate on that, and not have other things on my mind. Then I wanted to have a break before the season, which is important because we don’t have a winter break. I think the previous contract took more than six months to finalise, and this was probably a bit longer actually. It’s one of those things that’s never going to happen overnight. When everyone’s happy, that’s when to do it, and thankfully it turned out that way.
Were you getting much encouragement from others in the dressing room to sign your contract?
Yeah, I was [laughs]. The ‘Sign Da Ting’ song - Lukas Podolski loved doing it every time he saw me in the dressing room, in training. All the guys would joke about it. It wasn’t too serious because players know how long contracts take, and they don’t want to get involved. But it’s always healthy to have a bit of banter, and it made me smile every time hearing that - that’s why I love these guys. They’re great.
Which people did you turn to for advice when you were negotiating?
Well, the good thing was that everyone let me have my own space and my own thoughts - and if I needed to bounce stuff off people, there’s always someone on the phone. My girlfriend, Mel, has always been with me so she can look after me as well. But I tend to keep everything to myself really. If it’s something that I need to share with someone, that I can’t figure out myself, I would do that. But I think I’m quite a bright lad and I can figure a lot out for myself.
What did the manager say to you to make you sign?
I think having an opportunity to play up front played a part. Saying that, I don’t feel we should change it at the moment with Olivier doing so well there. The manager obviously knows what’s best for the team, but it’s nice having more opportunities to show what I can do up front. The boss has always had so much belief in me from a young age, but we haven’t won anything for a long time now, so we want to pay him back by winning something. If we don’t perform he always takes it back on himself, but at times it’s not fair because we’re the players that go out there and do it. He definitely lets us know when we are not performing though, which is the right way to do it. He’s a great manager and I’ve learned so much from him over the years.
"Once the team wins the first trophy I think you’ll start to see us coming back to where we should be. It’s important for me to be a part of that"
What can the fans expect from you over the coming seasons?
I think it’s only going to get better, hopefully, if I stay fit and look after myself. Once the team wins the first trophy I think you’ll start to see us coming back to where we should be. It’s important for me to be a part of that, considering the amount of time I‘ve been here. But I think the fans are starting to see a massive change. I’m still young, but I have so much experience and I absolutely love entertaining all the fans - that’s important to me. When a team is playing well it makes your job easier and when you’re winning games it’s fantastic to be a part of it. It’s when things aren’t going too well that you need to stand out and get your team back involved. Lukas, for example, against West Ham - he just came up with the goods when we absolutely needed it. We have got players in the dressing room who can create something out of nothing, and I want to be part of that backbone.
So what are your ambitions in the coming years?
We should be competing for the Premier League every year, without a doubt. That’s the first priority. The FA Cup too - we should be going very far every single year. Capital One Cup, Champions League - every competition we should be competing, as long as we believe that we can. You see it when we go a goal down, everyone thinks, 'Right we need to step up here because it’s not good enough'. But if we do that from the start we can beat absolutely anyone. I think we will get to a stage when we win games even when we haven’t dominated. We’re starting to get there, and as soon as we hit that target I’m sure we’re going to be flying.
How do the team go about overcoming a psychological barrier like that?
I think if everyone’s louder - and I’ve noticed that in training recently - if everyone communicates more on the pitch, has a go at you now and then, it just sort of sharpens you up. We need to take responsibility, we can all do that. I see it every day at training, but we have to put that into the games. If you get a bit more out of yourself you’re going to want it more. If you see that someone cares, you’ve made a mistake and they lift you up, that means a lot.
And as one of the more experienced players in the dressing room, do you often give advice to the youngsters?
To be fair yeah, yeah I do - I’m always there for any of the guys. I think at times they may look up to me, which is great but I’m just one of the guys as well. If someone gets injured, for example, I always like to have a chat with them, see how they are. But yes that’s the other side of the game I’m starting to learn as well. Robin used to give me a lot of advice when I was younger, and I’m not quite there yet, but I will be.
You’ve scored 18 goals so far this season. Have you exceeded your own expectations?
I wanted 20 goals in all competitions, so I may have to set another target! But I also wanted between 15 and 20 Premier League goals, and I’m on 11 at the moment. Assists are a bonus, but for a wide man, the number of goals I’ve got so far is definitely better than I would’ve thought.
Looking to the rest of the season, do you think it could be a blessing in disguise that you didn’t start as many games earlier this year, so you will be fresher for the run-in?
Yeah, maybe. But I want to play every game to be honest, especially because I’m enjoying my football so much. But it could come into my hands, hopefully. I’m looking after myself and the medical team has been great as well. We have got all the heart rate monitors and GPS systems, so we know how to deal with it. They can limit what you do - that’s what the best teams do now.
"I don’t really look at the stats - apart from my Dream Team points!"
What longer-term individual ambitions do you have? You are 40 goals from joining the exclusive ‘100 Club’…
That would be a great achievement, definitely, but I haven’t thought about it. I like to concentrate on the now, but to be part of that would be a great achievement, at such a young age as well, with all the highs and lows I’ve had in my career. To be honest I don’t really look at the stats - apart from my Dream Team points, that’s about it!
It was seven years ago in January that you arrived at Arsenal, at the age of just 16. What are your memories of your first few weeks at the Club? Which people were especially influential and helpful at that time?
My dad was great. When I first came here it was great that I lived with just him in Enfield, at Edu’s old flat actually. If I had come here without anyone, I don’t know what would have happened, it might have been a completely different story. But he’s done so much for me throughout my career. From all the cars blown up along the A34 and M25 on the way to training in Southampton. He made a lot of sacrifices, he’s always been there and will always have my back. He’s looking after himself as well - he’s lost so much weight he can even fit into my clothes now! He’s always on the other end of the phone if I need him, but he knows I can look after myself now.
And your girlfriend Mel has been with you that whole time too. You seem to have a very settled home life…
I think it’s always nice to be comfortable in an environment you like as well, at home. I’ve been with Mel more than seven years now. We got engaged over a year ago, so that’s the next step. Hopefully then we will start a family as well, so there’s lots of things I can look forward to. But I’m only 23. I’ve got a lot of time on my hands, hopefully.
So it won’t be long until you are asking Jack Wilshere for parenting tips?
Yeah, one day! Jack was saying your life obviously changes loads. I was recently speaking to Gael Clichy, who I’m still close to. He has a young daughter and he says it’s the best thing in the world. He’s a very good dad, I can see that, and he said that I’d be a good dad, which meant a lot. I don’t know how I’ll cope though. I went to my nephew’s birthday party the other day and there were loads of kids running round playing this laser tag thing, so I decided to get involved, but maybe went over the top a bit!
"There was a queue of people outside my little house just wanting an autograph, and that was a different experience for me"
You have been in the public eye ever since joining Arsenal, and then especially after being selected for the 2006 World Cup as a 17 year-old. Is there anything you miss from the days before your every move was analysed?
It’s funny - when I got into the World Cup squad I remember going into my local village in Compton and seeing flags up with ‘Come On Theo’ written on them. There was a queue of people outside my little house just wanting an autograph, and that was a different experience for me, it took me by surprise. I suppose that was the moment I realised life would never be the same again. I’m quite a quiet guy. I like to get on with my life and my days growing up really were fantastic, but it all changed from then.
Is there anything you can’t do now that was easier back then?
Well I obviously can’t be quite as carefree now as I was then, and have to make sure I look after myself. I went to Mel’s grandparent's birthday recently and there were kids playing on astroturf, and Mel said, “Wouldn’t it be funny if you just got involved with that?” But I just can’t do it. The other day at my nephew’s birthday they were playing football, and I stayed in goal. I didn’t want to go out there because there was an absolute ruck of kids, about 20 of them all running towards the ball! You’ve got to be careful, and be professional.
But I like to play golf - I play that quite a lot. I used to play a bit of tennis, but I’m not great, in fact I’m horrible! I lost to Mel’s grandad at tennis actually and he was 86 at the time. That’s how bad I am at tennis, so I think I’ll leave that!
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