Heart Of Football

Part-time hero to be Everton's star?

It was in the dead of night when a player who had been a part of Arsenal's first team for 12 years approached the security guards with two bin bags.

Theo Walcott, a Gunner as man and boy, was about to become an Evertonian. His transfer on Thursday probably felt more of an emotional separation to Arsene Wenger than the more ballyhooed departure of Alexis Sanchez.

And, deep down, Walcott is more aligned to Arsenal's post-Invincible failure than Sanchez could be.

Walcott, still six weeks short of his 29th birthday, was the protege Wenger bought from Southampton to mould into the new Thierry Henry.

In their dreams.

Theo James Walcott, son of a Jamaican airman and an English midwife, was all that was good and decent and hopeful in the shires. He had, and has, mild manners. He listens and learns.

He joined Southampton's academy as a boy with a sprinter's fast genes, fine balance, and an eye for goal. Wenger plucked him for a downpayment of £5 million (S$9.1 million) which doubled by increments as the youth became a man.

The fee that Everton paid to line him up with his old England skipper Wayne Rooney, doubled again. And the £110,000-a-week salary for the next 31/2 years isn't bad either.

But Allardyce sees something in Walcott. He gave the winger 20 minutes as a substitute in the one and only match Allardyce oversaw as England manager. Rob Hughes

Of course, none of it compares to Sanchez. But money isn't, or should not be, the reason for everything.

In blunt terms, if Sanchez walked because Arsenal were a powder-puff gun in European football, Walcott has to be considered in a similar light. Their numbers are incomparable, but they shared in collective underachievement in North London.

Walcott departs as he came, deeply respectful of Wenger. He even talks in that circumspect way of Le Monsieur, not with a French accent but by accentuating the positives when fans (spoilt by the Thierry Henry, Patrick Vieira, Tony Adams era) wanted nothing short of Premier League domination and Champions League capability.

There is a tell-tale element to Walcott's figures at Arsenal. He played 397 games, scored 108 goals and made 78 direct assists. Yet, in 145 of those games, he started or finished on the bench.

He was a part-time hero. Trusted, but not 100 per cent by his mentor.

Now, under the Billy Goat Gruff management of Sam Allardyce, Walcott acknowledges that he expects another kind of relationship. A kick up the buttocks, if that is what it takes to reboot the potential that never quite sustained itself down in London.

Walcott's boots in bin bags was a surreptitious career change. A more public statement might come on Sunday, Feb 3, when Everton visit Arsenal at the Emirates Stadium.

Between now and then, the player, the man, who has never lived north of the London M25 ring road, will experience the North-West. It can be harsh up there but also extremely welcoming to footballers who are seen to give every ounce of themselves.

Walcott has feelings for the city on Merseyside. As a child, he shared his father's affection for a certain club there. Liverpool, not Everton.

His favourites were Michael Owen and Robbie Fowler.

The Toffees will forgive him, provided they see the best of him in their shirt. And on their wing, despite Walcott hankering for a central striking role which occasionally Wenger indulged.

Allardyce is more pragmatic, less paternal, than Wenger. Indeed, he taunted Arsenal's "tippy tappy" football down the years.

But Allardyce sees something in Walcott. He gave the winger 20 minutes as a substitute in the one and only match Allardyce oversaw as England manager.

That was 20 minutes more than Sven-Goran Eriksson fielded Walcott at the 2006 World Cup. I was in the room when Eriksson surprised everyone (including Wenger) by saying he was considering taking Walcott to the World Cup in Germany.

Eriksson had never seen Walcott play. He sent Tord Grip, his trusted assistant, to watch Arsenal train and on Grip's recommendation Walcott catapulted into the World Cup squad.

At 17 years and 75 days, he made his debut in a warm-up international.

But he was taken to Germany just for the ride, a spectator taking a place in the squad that contained Beckham, Lampard, Gerrard and Rooney but fizzled out in the quarter-finals.

Walcott's finest night came in Zagreb in 2008 when he scored a hat-trick against Croatia in World Cup qualifying. Still a teenager. Still potential. And still to this day hoping to fulfil his talent, albeit now as an Evertonian.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on January 21, 2018, with the headline 'Part-time hero to be Everton's star?'. Print Edition | Subscribe