It is difficult to feel sorry for a multimillionaire who gets to play football for a living but sometimes I feel a little sorry for Arsenal's Theo Walcott. Rarely, perhaps not since Joe Cole, has the hype of one's youth hung so heavily over a player's present and future. Walcott is forever playing in the shadow of what we hoped he would become. He is forever haunted by becoming merely a very good player rather than a world class one.
I believe that Walcott is hamstrung by, and adjudicated via, a number of matters that are out of his control. It is not his fault he was hyped so highly as a teenager nor is it his fault that Sven Goran Eriksson called him up - to everyone's surprise - to the World Cup squad in 2006. Nor is it his fault that he seems to be from a different social class to most footballers which leads to many individuals believing he is ''too nice to succeed''. Nor is it his fault that he came to the game so comparatively late - he played his first game aged 10, he didn't sign for a professional club until he was 12.
He doesn't seem like a typical footballer. As above, people call him that horrible, weasel word ''nice''. Footballers shouldn't be nice. Rather than cherish a polite, grounded young man we complain that he isn't similar enough to the other players; players who, naturally, we endlessly complain about being rude, thuggish, man-children.
Walcott is the one of the few men in the game who can score a hat-trick and be lambasted for not doing it more often.
Nor does he link us to our footballing past like, say, Wayne Rooney or Steven Gerrard. He isn't from a traditional footballing hotbed. He isn't an ''old-fashioned street player'', he doesn't hark back to those glory days of being picked from the streets to play for his local team having been steeped in the game since birth. I think this leads many in the game - and I am no doubt as guilty as others - to be unduly sceptical of him.
We do not give him the rub of the green as we do with other players. Every mistake is yet more evidence against him. We hear that he is ''an occasional player'', ''a player who doesn't do it regularly enough'', ''a player with no game intelligence'' or - the coup de grace - ''a player with no end product''.
When he does show end product, when he does show game intelligence, when he is scintillating, we shout ''why doesn't he do that more often?''. Walcott is the one of the few men in the game who can score a hat-trick and be lambasted for not doing it more often.
Compare him to Adam Johnson. Both men have that label imported from rugby of ''impact substitute'' thrown at them. With Johnson, it seems to be a call for him to leave Manchester City - if only he left, he'd be more than an impact substitute. He'd be a proper player. Walcott, on the other hand, has that label forever. Many in the game think that is all he will ever be.
He still has that blistering pace that can mean a well-angled ball means he can spring a defence but, on top of that, is increasingly better on the ball, increasingly putting in more telling crosses and increasingly able to use that pace to beat a man.
Turning elsewhere, compare him to the other precocious talent of his generation, Wayne Rooney. Unlike Walcott whose every mistake is burned in our memory, we write off Rooney's myriad personal and footballing failings. We shake off his appalling - for it was appalling - 2010 World Cup with barely a critical eye. My theory, I suppose, is Rooney fits with our image of what a footballer should be whilst Walcott raises our eyebrows. Shouldn't he be one of the chaps who goes off to university, plays in the Varsity Match and goes on to become an scrum-half-cum-investment-manager? Or, perhaps, a middle order batsman for a middling county?
But what of Walcott the footballer? Last season, he scored 11 goals in all competitions (in 46 games) and supplied 13 assists. In the Premier League last season, he produced more assists than the likes of van der Vaart, Modric, Gerrard, Young, Rooney, and Suarez. In fact, amusingly, he produced more assists than Ashley Young and Stewart Downing combined.
His game has changed and improved almost unnoticed in recent seasons. He still has that blistering pace that can mean a well-angled ball means he can spring a defence but, on top of that, is increasingly better on the ball, increasingly putting in more telling crosses and increasingly able to use that pace to beat a man. His pace also means that defenders are likely to stand off him allowing him time and space to get in a cross.
That seems to me suspiciously like end product. His cameos at the recent Euro 2012 championships suggested no little game intelligence. There are still areas of improvement but Walcott may be a fantastic buy for Chelsea or Liverpool. Given the improvements he has made, the contribution he can make, and the investment in him, I would be extremely surprised if Arsenal let him go.
This article first appeared on the always excellent Left Back in the Changing Room
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