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Page last updated at 15:02 GMT, Thursday, 11 September 2008 16:02 UK

Walcott comes of age

By Chris Bevan


Theo Walcott
Walcott was making only his second England start against Croatia
The boy wonder is back in the headlines - and with a bang.

Theo Walcott's brilliant hat-trick to sink Croatia in Wednesday's World Cup qualifier underlined his quality and immense potential as well as establishing him as England's brightest young star.

But his virtuoso display was also a reminder that success does not always happen overnight.

His arrival in the first place was a surprise. His mother Lynne told BBC Radio Five Live he was named Theo as it means 'Gift from God.' She said: "He was the accidental child."

Walcott grew up in Compton, near Newbury, and only played his first organised football match at the age of 10

But his progress was startling, and within four years he had signed a sponsorship deal with a major sportswear manufacturer.

Walcott first shot to public prominence when Arsenal paid a fee that will rise to about 12.5m to sign him from Southampton as a 16-year-old in January 2006.

His hype was fired into an even higher orbit a few months later when Sven-Goran Eriksson controversially called him into England's 2006 World Cup squad and he then became the youngest England player to play in a full international - all before his Gunners debut.

Suddenly Walcott's face was on the back - and front - page of every newspaper and we had barely seen him kick a ball in anger.

After a seven-month wait, Walcott finally played his first senior Arsenal game in August 2006, but there were to be more frustrations in store as he tried to establish himself as a Premier League player.

He made only six league starts in his first full season at the Emirates Stadium and managed just nine in an injury-hit 2007/08.

Interview: Theo Walcott

Although he began most of Arsenal's games in domestic cup competitions, Walcott had to settle for cameo appearances off the bench in the league and in Europe.

Doubts over his crossing and finishing ability surfaced and his form undoubtedly suffered as Gunners boss Arsene Wenger struggled to find a settled position for him in his team.

Under Eriksson's successor, Steve McClaren, there was no place for Walcott in the senior England set-up either and he had to be content with playing for the Under-21 side.

Things were not going according to plan but Walcott kept working at his game and, still only 19, he has come back stronger.

This was the year that everyone wanted him to really get into gear and he is certainly doing that

Martin Keown
Former Arsenal defender Martin Keown, who mentored Walcott when he first arrived at the Emirates Stadium, is not surprised he has come good.

"He has had a difficult time at Arsenal," Keown told BBC Sport. "He went there very young and had a problem with a dislocated shoulder that affected him last season.

"But this year he has had a proper pre-season and Wenger has given him plenty of opportunities.

"This was the year that everyone wanted him to really get into gear and he is certainly doing that. It doesn't matter whether it is in an Arsenal or an England shirt because it just shows his hard work is beginning to pay off."

Walcott has started four of Arsenal's five games this season but Wenger is not the only manager to have renewed faith in his talents.

England boss Fabio Capello gave him his first international start against Andorra on Saturday and picked him again for the trip to Zagreb.

Theo Walcott
Walcott was 16 when he joined Arsenal for an initial 5m in January 2006

"It is important that Capello stuck with him," Keown added. "That gave him confidence and he came to the fore. The whole nation was looking for someone to shine and that person was Theo.

"And, when you look at how well he played against Croatia, you have to remember how he has progressed.

"I think the other players questioned him when Eriksson first picked him because they had not seen a lot of him - but Sven saw his promise.

"And what he has improved is his maturity, especially in front of goal.

"His third goal against Croatia summed that up. The first was an opportunistic strike, the second a composed finish but with the third one he had time to pick his spot and he didn't panic. He just looked a class act when he put it away."

The way Walcott took his goals makes Keown think that his long-term future could be as an out-and-out striker but, for the moment, the right-wing role is ideal for him as he continues to improve.

"Wenger always saw him as a frontman," Keown added. "But now his decisions on the ball are better and in front of goal he looks deadly.

"That is where we want him, in that central area more and more. But his pace will get him there from a wide position and that seems to be the way forward at the moment.

Arsene Wenger on Walcott's hat-trick

Keown spent 13 years at Arsenal in two separate spells from 1984 to 1986 and 1993 to 2004 before being invited back by Wenger to mentor Gunners players during the 2005/06 season - which is where he met Walcott for the first time.

"I was there the first day he walked into the club," Keown explained. "And what struck me when I saw him in training was his ease of movement.

"Arsene's training sessions try to recreate match situations; concentrating on passing the ball and drills like coming in and out of cones or playing off walls.

"Theo was doing that so gracefully that he was moving like a panther. He was so graceful and, for such a young kid, it seemed so easy for him from day one."

PHIL MCNULTY BLOG

Following his heroics for England, Walcott will be expected to reproduce that sort of form every week but Keown is confident he will be able to handle the added pressure.

"Theo is not the sort of lad to get carried away," he added. "But he will need protecting because people will become very critical if he does not repeat that form.

"He will need the people around him to give him the confidence to perform but he has got the right personality to continue to improve and, if anything, he just needs to slow down.

"In the last few months he has been trying to work outside his comfort zone to improve his skills and sometimes I look at him and think he is trying too hard - you saw that with his mistakes early in the Croatia game.

"But the way Arsenal play is ideal for his development - they play as a team but the individualism he has will not be stopped by Arsene."


see also
Walcott feat a one-off - Wenger
11 Sep 08 |  Internationals
Croatia 1-4 England
10 Sep 08 |  Internationals
Capello hails England 'courage'
11 Sep 08 |  Internationals
Eriksson yet to see Walcott play
09 May 06 |  England
Wonder of Walcott
20 Jan 06 |  Arsenal


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