A guest post from @foreverheady
The autumn of 2012 was an interesting time for The Arsenal. The three new signings, Olivier Giroud, Lukas Podolski and Santi Cazorla were settling in quite nicely, but their arrival early in the summer, initially greeted by the fans with some degree of enthusiasm, did little to compensate for the disappointment felt when both Alex Song and Robin van Persie left the club for what, to them, seemed greener fields elsewhere. The first few results seemed promising: despite successive nil-all draws suggesting that Giroud wasn’t quite the replacement for RvP some had hoped for, a comprehensive win at Anfield with goals from the other two new boys and a display of poise, power and grace from Diaby suggested that the season might turn out well after all. A thrashing of Southampton and a hard-earned away point against Manchester City confirmed the promise, and, albeit prematurely, some were talking of a title challenge. However, and especially in light of the two afore mentioned departures, one particular cloud hovered over the horizon. Theo Walcott, who had been with the club since he was 16, and now surely entering his most productive footballing years, was entering the final stages of his contract, and as yet had not put pen to paper to commit himself to the club for another term.
As autumn gave way to winter the mood around the Emirates darkened too. A number of poor results saw the team slip down the table, injuries (especially to Diaby) began to take their toll and an embarrassing League Cup exit on a frozen Bradford pitch seemed to suggest that the stadium project was nothing but a white elephant, draining the club of money, players and hope. The vultures were circling, and Walcott was the prime target. Not many would have bet heavily on him staying at the club with the January transfer window about to open. Much was made at the time over his desire to play centrally, but I think there was more to it than just positional preference. Money came into it, of course, but also I think a desire to be central to the plans of the club – and also a need to know that the club was worth being central to. Just after Christmas he got his wish to play up front as lone striker in an astonishing game against Newcastle, and he answered those critics who suggested that he lacked the physical presence and skill set to be a Number 9 with three fine goals: the first a Henryesque finish from left of centre into the bottom far corner, the second a predatory effort in the box, the third an exquisite chip after an audacious solo run. 7-3 the score line, and as he acknowledged the applause with a solo lap of the ground after the final whistle it was impossible to know whether he was saying goodbye to The Emirates or just revelling in the moment. I felt sure he was off. Only he will truly know, but I suspect he could not have failed to be moved by the warmth of his reception and the love the crowd had for him. But much to my surprise in mid-January, sign da ting he did, and for a while he must have wondered what he had done. Defeats by City and Chelsea, a premature Fifth Round FA Cup departure to Blackburn and then an away defeat to Tottenham saw the Gunners fortunes, while not quite at rock-bottom, at least feeling suspiciously much like it. We trailed Spurs by seven points, we were about to be knocked out of the Champions League by Bayern Munich, confidence was low and a season that had started reasonably optimistically was threatening to unravel.
Except it didn’t. Changes to the defence tightened things up, and Theo started to fire on all cylinders. A ten-game unbeaten run in the league, inspired by vital goals from him, saw The Arsenal secure fourth place on the final day of the season, breaking our neighbour’s hearts into the bargain. I suspect we may never properly know quite how important a placing that was, how seminal Walcott’s strikes were. What we do know is that by denying Tottenham Champions League football they found it impossible to stop Gareth Bale from leaving them. And we also perhaps know that because Real Madrid needed to fund his purchase, they made Mesut Ozil available, and that The Arsenal were able to step in and buy him. Inspired by that acquisition the Gunners played some brilliant football at the start of 13/14 and went on, of course, to win the FA Cup as well as finishing comfortably ahead of the chasing pack in the Champions League spot again. More top signings followed those successes, with Alexis being the most notable, and despite a horrific injury crisis in the first half of 2014/15, third place in the League and another FA Cup triumph suggested that whatever assurances were given to Theo back in January 2013 about the direction of the club, they were very much on the money.
The irony of course, is that since the club signed Mesut Ozil, Theo has been almost permanently injured, and so we have yet to really see the full flowering of a relationship that I believe could become one of the most potent and formidable in the history of the game. Walcott possesses electrifying pace, a fine footballing brain and the predatory instincts of a natural born goal scorer. He is articulate and well-mannered, but also ultra-competitive. He is also appropriately ambitious and has it within him to become a legend for both club and country. His career thus far has been interrupted by a whole series of niggling injuries, and at times he has seemed just a little bit frail. However, after suffering what could have been a career-ending cruciate ligamentinjury in the Third Round FA Cup defeat of Spurs back in January 2014, he has shown admirable fortitude in not only fighting his way back to full fitness, but also returning noticeably more solid and robust.There is a bit of bulk about him now, a real physical presence. All credit to him, but also the medical team and the manager for resisting the temptation to bring him back too soon. It seemed to me entirely fitting that he should have scored the opening goal in the 2015 Final, and I hope he felt it just reward for his patience and fortitude.
So when people talk about all the new strikers we might buy, I just feel glad that we have on our books someone who has already scored over 50 goals for the Club, is a proven International and is still only 26. In the few games he has played with Ozil, Alexis, Cazorla and Ramsey he has shown signs that he could add quite significantly to that tally. Indeed, I would not dissuade anyone from having a few pennies on him ending the season as the league’s leading goal scorer, as long, of course, that he continues to play for The Arsenal. I like to think he will, for I believe his best years are yet to come, and that he is, in many ways, the vital cog in our attacking wheel. I also believe that it was his decision to stay three years ago that reminded everyone that although a few rats may have left, the Arsenal ship was far from sinking. I suspect the manager is more than aware of all of that, and that he has a special regard for him. After all, he did pay more than Five Million to Southampton when Theo was was only 17, a not inconsiderable fee back in 2006. While it would be fanciful to claim that Walcott plays Potter to Wenger’s Dumbledore, I cannot help but think of him as the boy who stayed. After all, I am often told that Arsene wears a magic hat….