Back in training after two months out, Theo Walcott talks injury recovery, his Wembley dream and inspiring Southampton's next generation...
It’s been nine weeks since Theo Walcott hobbled out of Southampton’s 1-0 home defeat by Aston Villa at the end of January – the low point in an otherwise successful homecoming to the club that launched his unique story.
For all his achievements: England’s youngest player and youngest hat-trick scorer, more than 100 goals for Arsenal, three FA Cup winners’ medals; Walcott’s return to St Mary’s last summer was still a major moment for him.
The fresh-faced forward, who recently turned 32 but remains as sprightly as ever, showing no signs of the rigours of more than 500 career appearances, is discussing his recovery from a rare hamstring injury – one of many problems that all seemed to come along at once for Ralph Hasenhüttl, whose team lost rhythm and confidence in the absence of key men, having topped the Premier League table at the start of November.
“The Villa game feels like an absolute decade ago, it really does,” Walcott reflects.
“I won the ball back and just played a simple pass, which I would’ve done a hundred times – maybe not so much with my left foot, but I did! – and then I just felt quite a tight, sharp pain in my hamstring.
“I’ve never had any hamstring issues at all in my whole career, which is mad to think, considering the sort of player I am. When I say that to people, they’re like, ‘really?’ But I’ve not had any issues.”
It is a strange quirk for such an explosive player as Walcott, whose sharpness remains perhaps his greatest asset.
Back at Staplewood having left the training ground behind half his life ago, he takes his responsibility as a mentor to Saints’ younger players very seriously.
“I’m someone who always likes to look after themselves in the gym, particularly these days, because all these players are athletes and you need to be able to keep up with them,” he smiles, before going into more detail about the injury.
“The scans determined it was a fairly good tear, and to structurally heal it needed time, basically. That was the main factor about it.
“For someone like me, who’s a bit older, I’m not going to be someone who’s going to force the opportunity to say, ‘I’m ready, I want to go.’
“You need to be patient with them, you need to respect the injury. This was nothing compared to the ACL and the MCL, everything I did in my knee many years ago, but the process of how you deal with it as a player is always the same – it’s never a nice thing.
“I spoke to Will Smallbone quite a bit about his knee injury, because I had a similar thing as him, so he can bounce loads of ideas off me with the fact that I’ve been in a similar boat to him and I’m around him when he’s been injured, so there’s a silver lining to it. I feel good.”
The self-confessed “gym freak” explains how time away from the training pitch brings opportunity to work on strengthening his body, not just his hamstrings, to ensure he’s fit and firing on his return.
But treatment in Covid times means different rules for injured players. Originally these included staggered arrival times and less mixing with the first team – restrictions Walcott is grateful to have seen lifted.
“Now it’s at the process where everyone comes in at the same sort of time, just to be around the place and feel part of it,” he says. “You don’t want to be isolated on your own. I feel like that’s never a good thing, because you want support as well.
“If you’re in that day to day, and it doesn’t change from being in the dressing room with the guys and having that banter, it’s really good for your head as well, instead of just being on your own with the physio.
“I keep going back to the ACL – that was the biggest one for me because that made me into the person I am in the fact that it was the biggest test I’ve had to face in my career, being out for that long.
“This is what I was trying to say to Will: you’ll come back a better person. You’ve got to be patient with yourself as well – you will take that similar sort of time to get back to the levels that you want to, that you’re out for.
“On the mental side of it, you’re looking forward to being back with the team, because it feels like a long time when you’re watching the team and results don’t go well for whatever reason. You can’t do anything about it apart from look after yourself to get back to try and help them.”
With Hasenhüttl having declared Walcott in contention for Sunday’s home clash with Burnley, tied with Saints on 33 points, his most experienced player is eager to help the team’s bid to replicate their exploits in reaching the semi-finals of the Emirates FA Cup in the remaining two months of the league campaign.
“I’m really excited,” he says of the run-in. “Obviously in the Premier League we need to start winning more games – that’s really clear to see, and we all know this as a team and as players.
“With the FA Cup run as well, it’s been a fantastic opportunity. It’s been a great distraction, but we’ve got to make sure we’re at it in the Premier League and not just focusing on that now.
“The lads have done brilliantly. To go to Wembley is going to be very strange and not quite the same, but for a player, the FA Cup… for me, being English as well, and we have quite a lot of English guys, it’s a massive thing.
“A lot of people don’t really think much of it, but I quite frankly don’t care what they think. It’s a fantastic opportunity to really make history.
“Going to Wembley in itself is a really great achievement. Playing for England and having quite a few caps, it’s an iconic stadium, and it’s just sad that there won’t be anyone there.
“Who knows, if we show the stuff we can do, particularly in the first part of the season, there’s no reason why we can’t end on a real high here, I believe, and I want to be part of it. I want to help the team progress in the future as well.”
It’s been four years since Walcott’s last Wembley appearance – the 2017 Community Shield between Arsenal and Chelsea.
Two years prior, he’d opened the scoring in the FA Cup final en route to lifting the trophy for a second time.
Such memories clearly hold a special place in his heart, and fuel that desire to repeat the trick in what remains the biggest game on the domestic football calendar.
To do so, Saints must first overcome Leicester in the semi-final at a largely empty Wembley.
“It went to a penalty shoot-out and I scored a penalty. It’s been a while,” he says of his last outing under the arch.
“I feel like a kid again going back to Wembley. It’s been far too long! It’s a fantastic opportunity to play there. I keep going back to it not being in front of people, but the occasion is massive.
“We need to make sure we’re fully committed to the cause, but we’ve got a lot to do before that game anyway.
“We need to go into those games being confident about ourselves, being really strong in the Premier League and having a real good presence about us.
“Watching the Bournemouth game, I felt, ‘yes, that’s the standard we want to play at’. That was us, and we want to see more of that now, definitely.”
Walcott describes his loan season to date as “like a heartbeat: up and down” but has seen enough in the cup run and the autumn months to convince him the club he loves can keep improving.
“Saints need to be competitive, everyone needs to be at it, we know this, and if I can help with that push, I’m going to do the best I can,” he adds.
“At the start of the season, it was really looking like it could be an incredibly mad season. It still is going to be – I believe that.
“We were top of the table in November, and we want more of that. I’m not saying we’re going to compete against the Man Citys and the Liverpools, but to just get a taste of it is a nice thing.
“The players are really disappointed because they know how good they can be now. It’s just about doing that on a consistent basis.”