Chelsea and Liverpool were both desperate to sign Theo Walcott back when he was England’s hottest prospect, but instead the rising star joined Arsenal from Southampton in 2006.
Why? Mainly because Thierry Henry was there. And even for a 17-year-old wonderkid who had just gone to a World Cup, Walcott still remembers the goosebumps.
Walcott joined Arsenal for a measly £5million and picked up the 32 shirt – which he wears today at SaintsAFP – Getty
He set up legendary midfielder Gilberto on his debut against Aston VillaGetty Images – Getty
Sitting down with talkSPORT for this Sunday’s episode of Up Front With, the 31-year-old, now back at Southampton, reflects on his Arsenal career with real fondness.
Of those early days, he said: “Chelsea came in, so did Liverpool and Arsenal. It was one thing that my idol was there – Thierry Henry. Plus Arsene Wenger gave so many opportunities to young players.
“I just thought I couldn’t say no to them and I wouldn’t change it for the world. It was one of the best decisions I ever made.
“As soon as I walked in, the first person I saw was Henry. I thought, ‘Bloody hell!’ I looked so starstruck. Then Robert Pires comes in, then Freddie Ljungberg, Sol Campbell, Ashley Cole. I was like a kid with his autograph book.
“I’ve never changed from that little kid up to now.”
Walcott trained alongside the likes of Dennis Bergkamp when he was 17Getty Images – Getty
Even still, Walcott had no idea what it meant to take over the number 14 shirt – arguably the most famous in Arsenal history – when his hero left in 2008.
“I originally wanted number 8 but it was the season they signed Samir Nasri, so they told me I couldn’t have it,” Walcott said.
“So I just said I’ll take number 14. I’m not superstitious and I didn’t really think of the relevance. Then suddenly I thought, ‘S***, I’ve taken Thierry’s number’.
“I got a shirt signed from Henry and it said, ‘Do number 14, from number 14’.
“He signed it off, and if it was good enough for him, it was good enough for me.”
Henry returned to Arsenal for a brief spell and let Walcott keep the number 14 shirtGetty Images – Getty
But funnily enough, when asked to name his greatest ever teammate at Arsenal, Walcott surprises you.
He said: “The best team I’ve played in was when Cesc Fabregas and Robin van Persie were on song with each other and me in there as well.
“I remember one season I set up around 14 of Van Persie’s 30-odd goals. For me, them two in a team, with me as well, was one of the best. That’s including England.
“My greatest teammate would have to be Van Persie. For me, he was the best finisher I’ve ever seen, he was better than Thierry Henry, he made it look so easy.
“If you gave it to him, he would score for you. He was a dream to play with, I don’t think there will be a player like him ever again.”
Van Persie was a hero for Arsenal until he left for Man United in 2012Getty Images – Getty
It would be fair to say that during his 12 years at Arsenal, Walcott did Henry proud – and continues to do himself proud by reinventing himself at Southampton this season.
While he may not have the same amount of silverware to show for it, Walcott scored more than 100 goals for the Gunners, most of them from out wide.
“I put on an old Tottenham game the other day, when I was about 19,” he added.
“And I was watching it thinking, ‘Bloody hell – I was really good!’”
In fact, he was so good that Lionel Messi asked for his shirt after a game-changing cameo off the bench during Arsenal’s famous 2-1 victory over the Spanish giants in a 2010 Champions League quarter-final.
“When he had the ball and he wanted to face up with me, he would turn and go the other way,” Walcott said. “I thought, ‘OK, Messi doesn’t want to try and run past me, that’s a good sign’.
“We played Barcelona quite a lot and Messi asked for my shirt. I thought, ‘Wow, the greatest player in the world is asking for my shirt!’ I’ve got no words for that.”
Messi was a public fan of Walcott’s, calling him ‘dangerous’ and questioning why he didn’t go to the 2010 World CupGetty Images – Getty
Among those 108 goals Walcott scored for Arsenal, his first came against Chelsea in the 2007 Carling Cup final and his favourite helped the Gunners win the 2015 FA Cup final.
Not to mention, this is a guy who bagged a hat-trick for England against Croatia before he turned 20.
Yet, while Walcott has already enjoyed a career very few would dream of, there is an unavoidable feeling that it could’ve been even better.
His next England goal after the third against Croatia came four years later, and the 2006 World Cup proved to be his first and last.
At Arsenal, despite playing alongside mercurial aforementioned talents like Henry, Fabregas and Van Persie – Walcott doesn’t have a Premier League winner’s medal.
How did a team like this not win the Premier League?AFP – Getty
“We were too nice. Then we won a few FA Cups and got in the Champions League a lot,” Walcott added.
“At times, that felt like it was good enough for Arsenal. It felt like a bit of a medal. As players we wanted to win things, but the club were happy to finish fourth.
“When Leicester won the league and we were the only team to beat them twice, that was the year we should’ve done something. That was the year Arsenal should’ve won it.”
There were also factors outside of Walcott’s control, like the shoulder injury which crippled him for most of 2008.
“That was so horrible,” he added. “I had to play a whole season with my left shoulder popping in and out. A little bit like Lethal Weapon with Mel Gibson.
“Every game I would go hiding for a bit and nobody knew about it, it really hindered me.
“I dealt with it, played through pain, but I wouldn’t have changed anything.”
Walcott only went to one World Cup and never playedGetty Images – Getty
Walcott is one of the most positive people you will ever meet: he goes to extraordinary lengths to turn everything into something worth smiling about.
The same applies to the darkest days of his football career, like when he was carried off on a stretcher with a ruptured anterior cruciate ligament while Tottenham fans lobbed coins at him in 2014.
Walcott missed 11 months of action, including the 2014 FA Cup final and World Cup, but he looks back on it with a smile, because his life changed for the better.
He continued: “The knee injury was the worst because I didn’t know I did it at the time, that’s why I did the 2-0 sign to the Tottenham fans.
“I got about £16.32 on my stretcher from all the coins they lobbed at me. That’s why I did it. I could’ve gone and bought some sweets, it was that much.
Arsenal fans will remember this moment fondly – even if it backfired on Walcott a little bitGetty Images – Getty
“All the tests were fine, I had a sharp pain for 20 seconds and then it was fine. I’ll never forget the phone call from the doctor. He asked me if I was sitting down. I went so white and burst into tears.
“I looked back at that and thought it was a blessing, because my son was born and I never missed it. Things happen for a reason – and that was my reason. I wouldn’t change it.
“Now that I’ve got kids, I look at football differently. They’re on my boots and I’m playing for them.
“Now they’re watching me, it’s like a film which has come full circle. I won’t force it on them, but I do practice with them a lot, especially with Finley. He’s got a good kick.”
Everything has changed for Walcott, but after recapturing his best form at the place where it all started with the same child-like enthusiasm and love for football, he shows that some things can always be the same, no matter how turbulent life gets.
Oh yeah, Walcott only went and scored against Arsenal earlier this seasonGetty Images – Getty
Listen to the full hour-long interview with Theo Walcott on the latest episode of Up Front With this Sunday at 9.30pm on talkSPORT!
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