Feature

'I've always played with a free spirit'

Theo Walcott: The Big Interview

This interview first featured in the September 2015 edition of the Arsenal Magazine.

 

The September edition of the Arsenal Magazine is out now

The September edition of the Arsenal Magazine is out now

 

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“If I can do well for Arsenal and hopefully England, I guess I’ll get attention. So in a way, I hope I do have to deal with it.”

Those were Theo Walcott’s words in his first ever Arsenal Magazine interview, way back in 2006, when asked how he would cope with the prospect of growing up in the public eye.

His move to the Gunners from Southampton as a 16 year old was headline news, and he’s barely left the back pages since, so Theo certainly has had to deal with media attention over the past nine years or so.

During that time he has progressed from teenage wonderkid to become the club’s longest-serving player and now has more than 300 first-team appearances to his name.

He also got married, became a father and overcame a serious knee injury, all in the full glare of the media spotlight. And that’s not to mention his performances for England.

Yet there is plenty more to come. The 26 year old signed a new four-year contract with the Gunners on the eve of the new season, looking to carry on from where he left off at the end of last term.

He netted a hat-trick – his fourth for the club – on the last day of the Premier League season, and followed it up with the opening goal in the FA Cup final the following

"The manager always had the belief in me, which was so important. He never put too much pressure on my shoulders, and only used me when needed at first"

Theo Walcott

week.

After a successful pre-season, which included goals to help seal the Barclays Asia Trophy and Emirates Cup, Theo is raring to go for the 2015/16 season.

He sat down to talk exclusively to the Arsenal Magazine about his time at the club so far, and the exciting future in prospect...

Theo, you are our longest-serving player, and you’re here for a few more years yet. You must be pleased to have signed a new contract?

Yeah of course, I’m delighted to have signed a new contract. For me, this team has got a really good base. Everyone is sticking together and after winning two FA Cups, we all want more of that.

We all want to be challenging for the Premier League and Champions League every year. We’ve had some top quality players joining us in recent seasons and they have made the squad much stronger.

There's a good feeling around the whole club, from the fans to the coaching staff, to the staff behind the scenes. Everything feels good, and I want to be a part of it. I still think there's something missing from our honours but I hope it's going to come very soon.

There have been lots of changes since you joined in 2006, but the values of the club remain constant. How does that help a player to develop over time?

The manager has always said he will give a chance to young players to show what they can do. He’s always believed in that. He wouldn’t just go out and grab just any player, he would firstly look at the youth system.

That’s important to him. The club and the manager always think about the future, and I’ve seen that myself over the past 10 years. I’ve seen players come and go, and this year there are a few new faces too.

There’s a good feeling around the club and everyone is buzzing for the start of the new season. You can see that in the way we are training too, and when you have that in a squad, there's a chance good things happen.

There was a huge weight of expectation when you signed, with many people doubting the move, so how much satisfaction do you take in the fact that you are still here nearly 10 years later, and winning trophies?

That was always the goal, of course. Obviously it took a while to get there, but it was never going to happen overnight.

I was only 16 when I signed. Then I went to the World Cup and there was a lot of pressure on me, but I didn’t let it affect me.

 

Theo Walcott signs

Theo Walcott signs

 

The manager always had the belief in me, which was so important. He never put too much pressure on my shoulders, and only used me when needed at first.

He didn’t expect big things straight away, which was important too. I think a lot of other people did, especially as I went to the World Cup at 17, but that was just a great experience for me.

It showed me how everything worked and without that experience I might not be sitting here right now, you never know.

I’ve also been able to learn from some great players over the years, people like Thierry Henry, who is still around working with the younger players, and he will make them better players too. It’s things like that which make the club even better.

The majority of hyped-up ‘talented teenagers’ never fulfil their potential in the way you have. So what’s the secret?

I think it's that I haven’t really changed. I've always played with a free spirit, I've always tried to have time for people and respect others. Also I'm a family man. That's who I am. I'm always looking to learn from other people and I've continued to do that.

That's made me into a better person and a better player. I'm still looking to learn from others because I always want to push myself to the highest possible level.

Family life has been important to you throughout your career. How important has the support from your family been over the years?

From day one my family have been making sacrifices for me. When I was really young they always took me to training sessions at Southampton because they knew how important that was to me.

My family have always been there for me and so supportive. Then when I joined Arsenal, and all the hype that was around it, my family helped me settle down in a house and sort out all the things that I needed to do, even though I was just 16.

I had to grow up quickly, and they helped with that. Mel, my girlfriend at the time, my wife now, she had the spotlight on her too.

She was just a girl at university from Southampton and suddenly became a WAG when I went to the World Cup! So that was a lot for everyone to take in.

It was tough for my brother and sister to deal with too, having their little brother talked about so much, but they helped me keep my feet on the ground.

 

Theo Walcott with Southampton

Theo Walcott with Southampton

 

My dad has always been there, at all the matches, taking me everywhere from an early age. Then there's my mum of course, and she's like the captain of the team! She made sure everyone was happy, and helped look after everyone.

So you could say that everyone had their part to play, they’ve been so supportive and I’m so grateful to them all.

As you say, Mel has had to deal with stardom too. How difficult has it been for the two of you to remain a private couple?

I think it’s important that you don’t stop doing what you would normally do. If you want to pop to the supermarket, then do it. You want to just be normal, you can’t just hide away all the time, there’s no need to. That just stops your life.

Now we have little Finley, it’s more important to get out there and see things so he can experience the world as well. It’s important to keep your head high, be proud of what you have achieved in life, and enjoy it.

The main thing about football is to be able to enjoy it. Look forward to coming to work with your team- mates, then go home to your family.

Having watched you grow up, people feel like they know you, but is there anything about you that people might find surprising?

No, I don’t think so! What I quite like when I go out is that people call me by my first name. Footballers usually get called by their surnames, but I like it when they call me Theo.

 

Theo Walcott with his son

Theo Walcott with his son

 

It sounds really odd when people call me Walcott. I just want to be like anyone else, and use my first name, so it’s weird when people call me Walcott!

Now you have a family of your own of course, how has that changed your life?

Around the time of Finley's birth was a difficult time for me, because I had the injury, but in some ways it turned out to be a blessing in disguise because it enabled me to be at the birth, and then at home afterwards.

I believe things happen for a reason so I was obviously meant to have a knee injury at that time! It was an unbelievable experience and watching him grow up has been great. I know it’s a cliche but he’s growing up so fast.

He’s 16 months now, kicking a ball, running around, so at the end of the season people will see hopefully what he can do on the Emirates pitch!

So would you encourage him to go into football?

He loves playing any sport. He's got some plastic golf clubs which he likes picking up and hitting balls too, so I hope he’ll be sports-orientated. I'm not going to be one of those dads that would tell their son what to do though. Whatever he chooses is fine by me.

He'll obviously be going to a lot of football matches as he grows up though, with his little cousin Seb, who loves football.

You’ve played more than 300 matches now for Arsenal. Are there key games that stick in your mind, or do you not look back too often?

Yeah I do look back sometimes. I've got a lot of recordings at home of my appearances and I do look back at them now and again. But I don't know what games would particularly stand out really.

I think I will always be judged on goals and assists, so I remember them mainly. There's one game I do remember though, for the wrong reasons, we lost to Fulham away and I had the worst 45 minutes of my life!

But that happens, you can have a bad day at the office, and what I've learnt now is not to dwell on it.

The games come thick and fast and young players can stay down in the dumps for weeks after a bad game.

Now I'm experienced though you realise you get judged on your next game, and people want to see a positive reaction. That's one of the biggest things I've learnt.

But when I look back on my Arsenal career so far, I’m proud of my goal tally and also proud that I’ve reached 300 games.

05:15

The best of Theo

I’ve just been given my club suit for the season and I am the only player who has got a gold crest, rather than red, because I’ve played 300 times.

That’s a really nice touch. I’m very pleased with that. Hopefully some other players will reach the milestone too, but not for now – I’m very happy to be the only one who’s got it!

When you talk about highlights, would your goal against Barcelona in 2010 be among them?

Yes definitely, that was a great night and a great performance. I also remember something which happened before the return leg in Spain.

I was doing the press conference at the Nou Camp the night before the game and I saw Lionel Messi at the top of the stairs.

I was chatting to him, then the boss came up to me afterwards and joked 'Theo, why didn't you push him down the stairs?!'

That has never left me, I thought it was brilliant, really funny from the boss. I think he scored four goals the next day as well! It's things like that are great memories, because people don't see that side of it.

That home game against Barcelona was definitely special though. I've scored quite a lot of hat-tricks too, and that's one thing in the game which isn't easy to do. I'm pleased with all of those, including the England one in Croatia.

One of my best goals was part of a hat-trick too, against Newcastle when I was falling over. That's a good lesson to everyone to keep playing to the whistle! We won that match 7-3, a great performance.

You started the season on 76 goals, joining the 100 Goals Club must be a big target for you this year?

Yes, I always set myself a goal target, and I want to go for that this year, but you can only get there if you look at each game in turn, train well and do the basics right.

The 100 Club is the big target this year, though – if I could do that it would be a massive achievement for me personally.

In the grand scheme of things, I would obviously prefer to win the league, given the choice! It’s nice to be fit at the start of the season, unlike last summer.

I scored in the FA Cup final, then we only had a three-week period before we met up again, so it didn’t feel like it stopped, which was great for me. I feel ready to go.

And you have been getting more time at centre forward too...

I've always said I can play any of the three positions up front. We have a great squad, and I think it will depend on the opposition we are facing, but it's a nice option for the manager to have.

People know I want to play up front and if I get more opportunities to do that this season I will hopefully show what I can do. I did it a few years ago when I scored 21 goals in a season so I still feel I can be successful up there.

01:58

Walcott on being a striker

You want the competition for places, but if you play well and train well you will be in the team. I know I'm not going to play every game at centre forward, that's why it's a good option to be able to play in any of the front three positions.

Arsenal have signed Ozil, Alexis and Cech over the past few seasons, but did you used to look on enviously at other clubs when they were making big signings each year?

Well the manager would always pluck the right players at the right times that would fit into the way we wanted to play. He knows what he is doing, he's been at the top for many years now.

And there are lots more youngsters, like Jeff Reine-Adelaide, coming through now. What’s your assessment of the current batch? 

These young players play with freedom, which is great to see. There will be a lot of pressure on their shoulders – players like Alex Iwobi, who did well in pre-season, Chuba who has gone on loan to Hull City, and Jeff who we saw at the Emirates Cup. He looks like a real Arsenal player.

I don’t know what position he will end up playing – the manager likes to play youngsters in different positions early on so he can work out where they fit best.

He’s really confident on the ball though, despite how young he is. These youngsters train with us a lot, so they see how comfortable and relaxed the environment is, so they know what to expect when they progress.

Finally, as someone who has been in their position – an emerging young talent at Arsenal – what advice do you give them?

They have to take their own journeys, of course, but I would just remind them that they are at the best club to learn.

They have the best manager to work with, the best squad and the best fans. They have everything set up for them to be a success. Now it’s up to them.

 

Theo Walcott with Thierry Henry

Theo Walcott with Thierry Henry

 

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