Academy graduate returns to St Mary's and discusses the first three weeks of his Southampton homecoming...
They say there’s no place like home. For Theo Walcott, there’s no place like St Mary’s.
For all of his illustrious achievements away from Southampton, including 47 England caps, three FA Cup winner’s medals and more than 100 goals for Arsenal, the Saints Academy graduate has never forgotten his roots.
Since his arrival on loan from Everton on transfer deadline day three and a half weeks ago, Walcott has spent the bulk of his time at Staplewood, adapting to his club’s style of play under Ralph Hasenhüttl, whose coaching methods have already struck a chord with a player whose past bosses include Arsène Wenger, Fabio Capello and Carlo Ancelotti.
In that time, Walcott has made his second debut in red and white, completing the full 90 minutes of an enthralling 3-3 draw at Chelsea, in which his fairy-tale homecoming was sealed by a timely assist for Jannik Vestergaard.
But only now has he had the chance to sample St Mary’s again, returning to the scene of his big breakthrough as a precocious teenage talent half his life ago.
“I feel like only today it’s really hit me, because it’s the first time I’ve walked down the tunnel and seen the stadium,” he says, with a beaming smile, as he gazes out on to the pitch where he used to wreak havoc in Saints shirts two sizes too big for him that billowed in the wind as he breezed past petrified Championship defences.
Nowadays, he’s dapperly dressed for the occasion, rocking a clean white tee underneath a navy suit, smart brown shoes, matching belt and considerably longer locks neatly tied back into a bun.
“Seeing myself as a 16-year-old kid playing at St Mary’s… it’s hit me now a little bit more than it has at the training ground,” he continues, still taking in his surroundings.
“There’s something about being at St Mary’s – it’s a special stadium, a special place where all my best memories have been.
“I had many years at Arsenal and great years at Everton as well, but there’s just something about Southampton that’s always drawn me here.
“I’ve always wanted them to do well, always looked at the fixtures and results, so I feel like I’m part of this club, definitely.
“Today I’m in a suit but obviously I want to be in the Southampton colours, so I can’t wait for that.”
Walcott’s first impression of Hasenhüttl and his new teammates counts for a lot. He knows what success looks like, after all, and how to achieve it.
But even at 31, with more than 500 senior games under his belt, it’s clear he has much to take on board when it comes to Hasenhüttl’s tactical approach.
Whilst there is so much he can pass on to those just starting out on the same path, Walcott hasn’t finished learning the game himself – perhaps one of the most pertinent lessons for the next generation in itself.
“I want to help the Academy graduates coming through now,” he enthuses, before revealing he’d like to dip his toe into coaching in future.
“I’m sure they’ve got a lot of questions to ask – quite a few of them have already been asking me things. A lot of them have been saying, ‘I watched you at Arsenal and now I’m playing with you!’ so that’s a nice touch.
“I feel like everyone’s a really hard worker. With the way the manager wants to play, you need to work hard, and if you don’t work hard you’re not going to play. It’s simple – there’s no hiding place.
“He expects perfection in certain jobs – particularly without the ball, but that’s something that I’m starting to learn pretty quickly now, and I’m looking forward to the next game.
“I feel like I’m built for the intensity of the training. In the Chelsea game, the amount of running that the whole team did… I was very pleased considering I haven’t played a lot of football up to now, and not just that, but what I could do in the second half especially, when I started to get into the game a bit more.
“I didn’t expect to play 90 minutes – I don’t think anyone did! But I got through it fine and with the fitness levels, I feel like I’m built to play this playing style and I’m learning pretty quickly.
“The manager has pulled me to one side a few times and put me in a room to go through a lot of tactics, which is nice to see, just to get my coaching head on, because that’s something in the future I might want to look at.
“It’s very interesting. I’m really enjoying my short time working with the manager at the moment and hopefully it can be a long-term thing.”
theo walcottevery time i look down to the badge and i see it, it's something that gives me chills.
on wearing the saints shirt again
Walcott does not attempt to hide his emotions and deep-rooted affection for the city of Southampton, its football club and its people.
It’s a place that conjures nostalgic feelings inside – and not just for him, as he explains how his family, particularly his father, reacted to the news of his homecoming.
“I didn’t really tell them until I was driving down from Manchester, where I was coming from,” he begins. “It’s funny because he used to drive me down to Southampton on regular occasions, twice a week; now I’m driving myself, I told him the news and he broke down in tears.
“I spoke to my mum and my brother and sister as well, just to explain the situation, but it wasn’t quite over the line, so I was waiting and waiting for the phone calls to happen.
“There was still a lot to do when I got down here, but I’m just pleased that both clubs came to an agreement to get it sorted, because it means a lot, it really does.
“Every time I look down to the badge and I see it, it’s something that gives me chills.
“It’s a bit like a film, I suppose. The way they go in a full cycle and someone goes missing and they come back home like Nemo – that’s all I watch now, kids’ films!
“It just feels like this is meant to be. It’s hit me now. This club is massive for me.”
Having missed out on a home debut against Everton, standing in the centre circle leaves him counting the days until Saints host Newcastle under the lights.
Before then is a trip to Villa Park, where the Premier League season continues without supporters inside stadiums – not that it has stopped Walcott feeling the love from the extended family he never really left.
“I’ve had so many messages,” he says, disbelievingly. “I can’t thank everyone, at all, but I try my best!
“It’s a shame not just for myself, with not having fans to welcome me, but for players who are making their debuts who can’t have their families there – it’s not nice to see.
“It’s just the way it is at this moment in time. Football is very different now. Players have got used to it, but there’s something that’s not right.
“Fans make football what it is. I can’t wait for them to get back... we’ll have some good times here.”