I'm grateful to Theo Walcott and I don't care who knows it!
It was August 2006 and we had just played our first game at the Emirates Stadium but we all left frustrated after drawing 1-1 to Aston Villa but the talk of the town was Theo Walcott. Walking down the stairs to get onto Hornsey road, there was a buzz around this young man who came on and was direct from the word go and set up the equaliser for Gilberto Silva. There's nothing better than a young fearless player coming through into the first team and exciting the crowd.
From his 100+ goals, I feel I must have seen at least 80% live and when I think of Theo Walcott, I think of goals against top opponents (even if we did lose the game). I understand people have a go at Theo and perhaps because he hasn't developed as we would have hoped but for someone who had a few long term injuries, set backs with England but ended his Arsenal career with over a hundred goals with a record of one in four mostly playing on the wing, I think it's a very decent return.
The argument is, he was at the club nearly 12 years and should have scored more but I think that is a fairly simplistic argument. He was extremely young in his few seasons and spent about two seasons (overall, including an entire year in row) over his career out injured.
Let's look at his performance season by season in terms of goals and opponents, he was very much a young player in his first full season who was mostly on the bench, starting the odd games but playing a big part in the league cup, where he scored his first goal for Arsenal against Chelsea.
The following season is more known to Arsenal fans as the season where Arsenal should have won the league and perhaps would have if it wasn't for the injury to Eduardo. The midfield was fairly set with Hleb, Fabregas, Flamini and Rosicky and the quartet started every game when fit. Theo, still a young player coming through got his chances mostly of the bench but did start a few games and started to make his mark in the team. He scored seven goals that season which is slow but steady but that included a goal against Spurs and two against Birmingham in that game Eduardo got injured. On paper, you wouldn't class a game at St Andrews as a big one but with what happened and for anyone that was there that day or watched on TV, you'll remember how shaken our players were and to be completely honest, we never recovered. In those sorts of games, you look for some to make the difference and Theo Walcott came up with two goals and only a last minute Birmingham pen prevented us from taking a vital three points.
Often what gets forgotten about that season is our Champions League campaign where we went and won at the San Siro against an AC Milan team who won the competition by beating Liverpool the season before. What was Theo's contribution there? An assist for the second goal. In the next round, he ran past half the Liverpool team to set up the same player as he did in Milan, Adebayor but that goal will be remembered for 'that' Theo Walcott run.
In the following season 08/09, the highlight for Theo was probably his hat trick for England against Croatia but he also scored against Chelsea again in the FA Cup semi final and ended the season with nine goals. Theo spent the period between November and March out injured which would have affected his numbers.
The season 09/10 was again disrupted with injury with Theo only playing 5 games between August and the end of December. Theo only scored four goals that season but included a goal against Barcelona at home, another big opponent in a huge game that brought us back in the tie.
10/11 may have be seen as his break through season where he made over 40 appearances and got into double figures with 13 goals – including a goal at White Hart Lane and in a win against Chelsea at home. He was starting to make the right wing his own after the departure of Alex Hleb a season or two earlier.
11/12 was when he continued playing regularly making over 50 appearances for the season and getting into double figures again for the second season in a row for goals. Theo may look at that season and think he under achieved in terms of goals but he was getting regular games and starting to find a set position in the team (right wing). The big contribution of note for many will be the two goals against Spurs in that epic 5-2 victory but scoring home and away in the Champions League qualifier against Udinese was huge. It was at a time we had lost Fabregas and Nasri and the entire club was in a panic and going out of the Champions League would have been a disaster. Theo along with Robin Van Persie often led the charge and he continued his good record against Chelsea by scoring in the 3-5 win at the Bridge. He did also score at Old Trafford but when you lose 8-2, the two you do score are less relevant.
The 12/13 season was the big one for Theo, Robin Van Persie had followed Fabregas and Nasri out the club and there was talk Theo could follow but he 'signed dat ting'. He scored 21 goals, playing on the wing with the occasional game up front and scored goals against Schalke (away), Spurs, Everton, Chelsea (obviously) and Liverpool. He scored two hat tricks, one at Reading in that league cup comeback and one against Newcastle in the League and got the winner in the FA Cup tie in Brighton. This was the season he stood up and made himself a regular in the team and created partnerships with the new signings (Giroud Cazorla, Poldi).
The 13/14 season was the opposite with Theo only making 20 appearances in all competitions as injury once again struck. He did manage 7 goals with two away to Manchester City and one in Marseille in the Champions League. Overall, this was a season where we needed Theo to kick on and have a fourth successive season scoring goals but it didn't happen and Theo's season ended in the first week in January. He did however stick two fingers up at Spurs fans indicating Arsenal were 2-0 up!
The 14/15 season again was a strange season due to the bad injury he picked up the season before which resulted in being out for a year and therefore his season didn't really start until January / February but ended it with a bang; a hat trick on the final day of the season meant he started the FA Cup final in which he scored and Arsenal went on to win the cup. In the end he made 25 appearances and scored 7 goals.
The major difference in Theo at the end of the 14/15 season and the start of the 15/16 season was that Theo often got his chance upfront – and perhaps, this actually set him back. Considering he scored 19 goals the season after purely on the right wing, playing up front, where he got a few goals but didn't set the world alight may have set him back. He did go back on the wing but played on the left which against didn't suit him – he did score at home against Man City and home and away against Leicester who ended up as Champions but at the time of scoring at home to Leicester on Valentines day we thought his goal could be potentially significant as his goal along with Danny Welbeck's last minute winner put us within touching distance of top spot – not that it ended up making any difference but if you were in that ground that day, you felt suddenly felt the belief.
You felt his last chance saloon came in 16/17 when the conversation had been had about his position and it was decided he would play right wing – I still maintain the dithering on positions may have set him back a season at a time when he needed to play. The season up to April was fantastic for Theo – he scored 19 goals, including his 100th goal for the club, scored against Chelsea, Man City (home and away), Liverpool, goals in the FA Cup which Arsenal went on to win and four in the Champions League including a goal at home against Bayern Munich, but the goal didn't mean much being 5-1 down in the tie already! Arsenal hit their peak at home against Chelsea with Sanchez, Ozil and Theo all scored and looked very dangerous. You felt Theo had finally found his place and could be in the team for a few seasons as long as he remained fit.
Suddenly, Arsenal started going through a rough period (bit of an understatement, in truth they were shocking). Pressure was on the manager, on the team and there were protests from some fans. The Crystal Palace game which will be remembered as the day fans turned on the team but for Theo, it was the day when his comments angered his manager, probably for the first time in his career, he wasn't favour of the month. Saying the opposition 'wanted it more' was the beginning of the end for Theo.
After which, Arsene Wenger did something he hadn't done for about 19 years, change from a back 4 to a back 3 or 5 (depending on how you look at it) and Theo was the fall guy. One offensive player had to drop out for the extra centre back and it wasn't going to be Ozil or Sanchez and that was that – Theo did actually start the next game but it was clear the formation didn't suit him and he hasn't started a league game since. That was certainly that.
For me, Theo has been the modal professional, perhaps been limited but tried to make the best of his ability. He has been with us 12 years and yes, he and his team did see an opportunity to increase his wages after Fabregas, Nasri and Van Persie left but who can blame him? Who wouldn't try and get the most they can get and what agent would be doing their job if they didn't sell their client to get the maximum. I would do the same.
The 'I want to play upfront' in my opinion set him back but Theo's record of 1 in 4 stands out in terms of wingers, he scored in big games as mentioned (several vs Chelsea, many vs Man City, a few against Liverpool, Man Utd and some memorable ones against Spurs, not to mention Bayern and Barcelona along with the assists in the 11/12 season where Van Persie scored over 30 goals).
I've absolutely loved watching Theo Walcott, I do feel he got a bit comfortable at times but I genuinely think he cared and gave 100% when on the pitch. He was a confidence player and when he lost that confidence, he struggled and rather than trying to be creative and make something happen, he went for the easy ball and sometimes that frustrated but with Theo, I always thought he would get into a goal scoring opportunity and remain a threat most of the time.
It's absolutely the correct time for him to move on but I think he will go with a heavy heart and fans will have their own opinions, but I hope he does well, continues to score against big teams (apart from Arsenal – yes, the jokes about Arsenal not being a big team are probably in full flow here) and starts to enjoy his football again.
I've been lucky enough to meet Theo several times and each time he has been a gent, always happy to stop and talk football. I've proudly got a framed signed shirt in my Arsenal room (sounds a little sad, but its place where I can keep all my Arsenal merchandise!) and it will certainly stay up.
Thank you for the service Theo – I really hope he gets back to a level where he can get back in the England squad and hope when his career comes to an end, he continues to be an advocate of Arsenal football club.
Good luck, Theo Walcott.