There's not much Theo Walcott has not seen in his 17-year professional career, but a World Cup in the middle of the season is a new one. Now the former teenager sensation, who was thrust into the limelight before he was ready for it, explains how his own experiences can help Southampton's raft of young talent maximise their enormous potential...
Theo Walcott has been a professional footballer for more than half of his life, but even for a man with more than 500 career appearances to his name, the 2022/23 campaign represents a dip into uncharted territory.
Even to Walcott, who arrived on the scene as a 16-year-old Saint back in 2005, the idea of a six-week break in the middle of the season is unprecedented.
“It’s my first time having such a short start to the season,” he says. “You get the odd winter break but that’s been in February – this one seems very different because you just feel like you’re starting to feel your fitness levels in the right place.”
Perhaps it comes at a worse time than most for the 33-year-old, who recently ended his 11-month wait for a Premier League start, and has featured in each of Saints' last three games.
Now, after a long fight to reclaim his place, he’s back to square one. After this weekend’s trip to Liverpool, Saints do not return to action until Boxing Day.
“Obviously we haven’t had some great performances and great results, so maybe this is a very good time for us to have a mini pre-season,” he reasons, “but it just feels a bit strange to be stopping the season, squeezing in a lot of games.”
The reason for the extended pause, of course, is the World Cup, which gets under way just one week after Europe’s top leagues draw to a close.
That brings its own problems, Walcott feels. “There will be a lot of players playing games thinking, ‘I don’t want to get injured’” he says. “I get it, players are trying to protect themselves, but when you try and protect yourself, that’s when you go in half-hearted and get injured.
“You would have players who wouldn’t want to play – I wouldn’t blame them.”
theo walcottstraightaway i had to develop in front of the world, basically. in england, with the media and everything, i couldn't.
on being thrust into the spotlight at 17 years old
Bizarrely, in an international career of 47 caps spanning ten years, Walcott only went to two major tournaments, notably excelling against Sweden in Euro 2012, when he was introduced as a substitute with England 2-1 down, before equalising himself and setting up the winner for Danny Welbeck with a trademark burst to the byline.
But it was for his wildcard entry into Sven-Göran Eriksson’s 2006 World Cup squad that 17-year-old Walcott shot to fame, thrust into the limelight for a tournament in which England exited at the quarter-final stage without their untried teenager kicking a ball.
Sixteen years later, on the eve of another World Cup, he believes the experience was detrimental to his progress.
“I’ve said this in the past – I don’t think I should’ve gone,” he states, with commendable honesty. “If I knew this was going to happen, I would’ve said, ‘do not take this young man. You can’t.’
“Straightaway I had to develop in front of the whole world, basically. In England, with the media and everything, I couldn’t.
“A lot of the players that come through now are 22, 23. I was 16, 17. I was a kid. They say that about players who are 22, 23 – they’re ‘kids.’ I’m sorry, but that’s not a kid.
“A kid is 16, 17, coming into the World Cup in a man’s game. I had to be there and – my wife as well – deal with things, like paparazzi. They don’t get that anymore really – paparazzi following them around at 15, 16, trying to get a picture.
“I don’t think anyone is ready for that at that age, just leaving school, I’d have never expected that. If I could change that, I genuinely would, but having said all that it was a mad experience for a family and for myself being part of it.”
At the time of the call-up, of course, Walcott felt like the luckiest boy on the planet, but the reality of that German summer did not follow the fairy-tale script.
“It’s weird, because I was just going there to play football,” he says. “That’s all I knew, that’s all I wanted to do, and then not to get a chance to play as well when thinking I might play in the last game – the Portugal one – when we went to penalties, that’s when I thought ‘I might actually come on here’, just for something different, but it never happened, which is a bit of a shame, but it’s just one thing I had to live with.
“I’ve got a video documentary of me filming myself and the whole thing that I’ve kept as a keepsake at home, so it’s quite an interesting watch, but I look really young, really young – very out of my depth, shall we just say.”
Perhaps the nature of his headline-grabbing arrival on the world stage means Walcott’s achievements in the years that followed lack the recognition they deserve.
Not only a long-standing member of the England squad, the winger became his country’s youngest hat-trick scorer at 18 and scored more than 100 goals for Arsenal, where he won the FA Cup three times in more than a decade at one of Europe’s leading clubs.
Back where it all began since his 2020 return to St Mary’s, via Everton, Walcott recognises his role has changed.
Whilst still desperate to contribute on the pitch, he knows his personal experiences, particularly given the scrutiny on his life as a teenager, can provide valuable insight for Saints’ raft of young players – even more so since the club’s summer recruitment drive, which saw six new faces arrive aged 20 and under, all of whom have been introduced to the Premier League for the first time in Southampton colours.
“I’ve had some really great moments, and that (the 2006 World Cup) is just another moment in my career that I’ve had to deal with, and dealt with in the best way, in the spotlight consistently – constantly,” he explains.
“I feel like now I would have that influence, or that experience to talk to if, with someone very young, it happened again to them.
“That’s why I like being at Southampton here with the younger guys coming from big clubs and wherever. I’m like an absolute dictionary of knowledge – they can come to me if they want to. I feel like they’re a bit scared of me for some reason, but I’m the nicest guy!
“I feel like I can guide, with what I’ve experienced, and hopefully help them on their paths where they’re going to be, for them to be better people and better players.
“I always like to engage with the person, because if the person wants to learn, they’re going to be fine being a footballer.
“It doesn’t even have to be football related. If I saw something that wasn’t quite right, I’d go and engage them, just check in. Sometimes that’s all it is, just seeing if they’re alright, or being that loud character in the dressing room saying the odd thing to help the mood.
“It’s not just me. Prowsey (James Ward-Prowse) is the same, Stuey [Armstrong], all these guys that are all quite similar in that sense, so we’ve got a good group.”
His influence on Saints’ youth was clear on the pitch just a matter of days ago when Walcott was selected to play for the B Team against Middlesbrough Under-21s.
Saints fielded a vastly experienced side, including Alex McCarthy, Ainsley Maitland-Niles and Moussa Djenepo, as well as promising first-teamers Roméo Lavia, Samuel Edozie and Sékou Mara.
Walcott, to his credit, scored a hat-trick in an 8-1 win. Whilst he’d rather get more minutes in the Premier League, he recognises the importance of setting the right example – in everything he does.
“I’ve had some games like this when you’ve had some players who just don’t want to be there, like ‘I shouldn’t be playing in this game’, but that’s not for me, that’s not the right attitude,” he says, sternly.
“I’m not a player that would be bringing the group down or anything like that, because I want the standards to be set at a high standard. You can’t have someone like me coming in half-hearted – you can’t be like that at all. I’ve never been like that from day one.
theo walcottthe team we're playing, middlesbrough, are like, 'wow, this guy's nearly 34, he shouldn't be running rings around us.' that's the standard you need to set.
on scoring a hat-trick for saints b
“I’m someone who works really hard, and I wouldn’t have played in the Premier League for this long if I didn’t care. I do care, I want to improve every day still, and there’s another role for me at the club at this moment in time.
“You’re playing football, you want to set the right example, you want to get something out of it. I wanted to get something out of it and I scored a hat-trick, great.
“That’s the levels where the team we’re playing, Middlesbrough, are like, ‘wow, that’s the level – we’re nowhere near where we need to be and this guy’s nearly 34, he shouldn’t be running rings around us.’ That’s the standard you need to set.
“Like I said before, with the younger guys coming through and the guys already here, just being that presence and that person that sets the standard in training, in the gym, being first out to training – all those things. I think it’s important just to engage that into the next person who can take over that role whenever that ends.
“I feel like I haven’t played as much, but I’ve played a role in helping this young group come through.”
What becomes abundantly clear throughout this 20-minute interview is that Walcott is very much a glass-half-full type of character.
He warns the younger generation about the dangers of social media. “I don’t see why you need to look at someone random’s opinion of a game you’ve played,” he says.
“Everyone around this club wants you to improve, wants to help you, so they’re the best people to talk to – and your family, of course. They’re the best people to be around and listen to.
“I do feel like sometimes we do start to go away from that a little bit. Hopefully now we can start to engage in each other a bit more and look for the people who really care and can help.”
Is he disappointed and frustrated not to have played more? Of course he is, but he refuses to sulk. In fact, he doesn’t even feel like he needs to put on an act. He’s just genuinely happy in his job.
“We play football, and we’re privileged to play it, and I want to be that role model for my children when I go back home,” he explains.
“They want to know how my day was, I want to know how their day is. I always like to take a positive out of their day, and even a negative to an extent – can they turn it around into a positive? All these things – we’re still breathing, and that’s a positive in itself.
“There’s no problem being positive all the time – try finding a positive somewhere in something.
“I’m coming in each day thinking like it’s my last. I’m really privileged to be here, playing football still, at this age and for this long in the Premier League, especially at a really good club.
“I just look at it that way. I’m training with a really good young group, guys I want to be with, and it means a lot to still play football. I still care – that’s the main thing. I always have cared, I still care, and I’ll continue to do so until someone tells me I can’t.”