Walcott: Being Benched Is The Kick Up The Backside He Needs To Thrive

He moved to the Emirates Stadium six years ago but after years of stagnation, is now finding himself confined to the bench; it could be the making of Walcott's tale as a Gunners great...
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He moved to the Emirates Stadium six years ago but after years of stagnation, is now finding himself confined to the bench; it could be the making of Walcott's tale as a Gunners great...

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Theo Walcott currently finds himself out of the Arsenal team, in need of a new contract, and further away from being selected in his preferred position as a central striker than ever before. How has this happened? Walcott was supposed to be England’s next great hope, the kid who would lead them to glory alongside Wayne Rooney. It’s fair to say these predictions haven’t materialised. In trying to answer why I asked myself if it could be that Walcott has had it too easy? Does he lack the necessary desire to succeed?

You see, it was always meant to be for Theo. Every boy’s Dad tells them they can grow up to be a professional footballer, a superstar who represents his country. But when Donald Walcott told this to his son Theo, he wasn’t lying.

Blessed with near-superhuman speed and agility that would always be valued on a football field, Theo was ahead of the chasing pack from birth. As long as he somewhat enjoyed the game, could kick a ball in a straight line and was capable of tying his laces, Walcott had a pretty high chance of making it as a footballer.

Matthew Syed, in his book Bounce, has gone some way to dispelling the “myth of talent.” Instead it is revealed to be dedicated practice and hard work that takes an athlete to the top – estimated to be around 10, 000 hours. But is Walcott, blessed with such outstanding physical attributes, an exception to this rule? Has he risen to his position as an international footballer without the hard work?

Every boy’s Dad tells them they can grow up to be a professional footballer, a superstar who represents his country

At his under-11 team AFC Newbury, Walcott scored 100 goals in 35 games. There was the first clue. Walcott could have probably gone on a scoring drought for his next five seasons and his goals-to-games ratio would have been enough to secure him a professional contract. None of his teammates could get close to matching his potential.  The young boy from Berskhire, who skipped past any defence put in front of him, would have been counting down the days until he was playing in front of a full stadium. Playing with kids his own age was just too easy.

It only took a few more years. Aged 16 years and 143 days, Theo Walcott became the youngest ever player to appear for Southampton. Two weeks later and he became their youngest ever goal scorer, netting away at Leeds United. In the following game he got another. And in the next game another. Walcott rapidly became the hottest property in football. So far, so good. It was all going to script.

Up until his move to Arsenal, Walcott had perhaps the smoothest pathway to professional football imaginable. Blessed with incredible pace, Walcott’s physical attributes gave him a head start over an entire generation. There would have been no extra hard work to refine his game in the hope of catching a scouts’ eye; who needs to get better when you’re scoring goals for fun and no one can get close to you? Clubs would have been begging for his signature ever since he first started skinning defenders.

Perhaps this goes some way to explaining why in recent years Walcott has failed to progress his game. While Cesc Fabregas has established himself at “the greatest team ever”, Alex Song has joined him, Samir Nasri has won the League with Manchester City and Walcott has gone from the Arsenal first team to the bench. Could it be because he has had it so easy?

At his under-11 team AFC Newbury, Walcott scored 100 goals in 35 games. There was the first clue. Walcott could have probably gone on a scoring drought for his next five seasons and his goals-to-games ratio would have been enough to secure him a professional contract

In tennis, it is often argued by many commentators that the reason Americans have won so many more grand slam tournaments than their British counterparts is due to the fact that they often come from tougher, more working class, backgrounds. The Williams sisters, for example, were raised in the Los Angeles ghetto of Compton. Their father Richard Williams devoted his entire life to the girls’ tennis career. The strength, desire and drive to even be accepted in tennis meant that his daughters would never stop fighting, never stop striving for more in their careers. Tim Henman’s comfortable childhood as the son of a solicitor is conversely cited as the reason he could never quite drag himself towards glory.

Perhaps this argument could be extended to Walcott too. In comparison to most footballers, Walcott’s background was decidedly middle class. That’s not to say his family did not experience struggle or make sacrifices to help achieve his goals, it would be unfair to assume so, but leafy Berkshire is pretty smooth sailing compared to the streets of Peckham, where Rio Ferdinand grew up. Just compare pictures on Google of Walcott’s The Downs School to Ferdinand’s now closed Blackheath Bluecoat to get a sense in the difference of background.

Now Walcott has a fight on his hands. It is no longer enough for him to drift along on Arsenal’s right-wing, perhaps bagging a hat-trick against a promoted team at the Emirates Stadium, making a couple of assists amidst the plethora of wayward crosses and misplaced passes. It seems that at the beginning of this season Wenger decided he had had enough; Walcott has started none Arsenal’s six league games since the opening day and has failed to convince the club to meet his demands for a new contract.

Furthermore, his comments to the press revealed that on top of trying to break into the team, he wants to cement a position as a central striker – a position he has never filled for Arsenal. On the wings it seems that even Southampton’s newer and younger prodigy, Oxlade-Chamberlain, has overtaken Walcott in the manager’s pecking order and the hearts of the fans. Up front, one suspects that Wenger would rather give Chamakh a rare sight of the pitch than risk the diminutive Englishman in the position.

Just compare pictures on Google of Walcott’s The Downs School to Ferdinand’s now closed Blackheath Bluecoat to get a sense in the difference of background

Make no mistake; this is the biggest challenge to date in Walcott’s career. A professional contract, breaking into the first team, a move to a big club, an England call up – all of these came with very little sweat or toil for Walcott. His career came on a silver spoon.

Thankfully for Arsenal fans, the early signs suggest he’s up for battle. Despite being stuck on the bench, Walcott has looked like a man possessed whenever he has been introduced to the action. He has notched four goals already off the bench, making him Arsenal’s joint second highest scorer.

His goal against West Ham United this weekend was a composed, clinical finish – exactly the kind you’d want from a striker leading your line. Walcott has a point to prove. Early signs suggest he might just prove it.

The initial rise to the top followed by the challenge that threatens to dislodge the status quo before finally the subject overcomes the barrier and ends up even stronger than before – it’s the story arc of every great hero tale. Perhaps Walcott’s is just beginning now.

More great stories from the catacombs of the Emirates Stadium

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Per Mertesacker: How Arsenal's BFG Proved The Critics Wrong

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