Theo Walcott and the English Football Fan’s Perception of Time
Now that he’s 30, it's finally time to say RIP to the former wonderboy's untapped potential, to allow it to find its own quiet peace.
Illustration: Dan Evans
Five minutes. That's all it usually takes. Five minutes that arrive suddenly in front of you, carrying with them the early amniotic glimpses of a prodigy that you know instinctively will be living at the edges of your vision for the next ten years at least. It's there in the way they move around a pitch, with a body language that feels instantly iconic.
Wayne Rooney had it, aged 16, against Arsenal and then on his first international start against Turkey. A couple of years ago, Kylian Mbappé had it during that thrilling run to the Champions League semi-finals with Monaco, while this season, Vinícius Júnior, Frenkie de Jong, Jadon Sancho and Mattéo Guendouzi have all innately felt like players who'll be loitering in the corner of your eye till the centenary World Cup in 2030, sweating into microphones on muted pub TVs, lurking in betting ads, memes and highlights clips strewn about online, glaring down, arms crossed, from A-road billboards and parade buses.
Theo Walcott, it is fair to say, has never been one of these players, not when he first emerged into the public consciousness as Arsenal’s new 16-year-old in January of 2006, and not now, 13 years later, when he has just turned 30 and is still trying to play exactly the same way he always has for an Everton side that have been butting their heads against the glass ceiling of the Champions League spots for so long they seem to be suffering from some kind of existential concussion. Adrift in 11th despite a heartening victory over Chelsea on Sunday – their first win against a "Big Six" opponent since Man City were thrashed 4-0 in January of 2017 – Walcott has offered Everton the princely sum of three goals and two assists this season, the ex-boy wonder continuing to quietly disappoint and frustrate everyone around him as he heads into his professional dotage.
Football does funny things to our perception of time. As part of a football-fanatical generation raised on the databases of the Football Manager and FIFA franchises, it was ingrained at a young age that 30 was the point at which players were officially over the crest of the hill, career athletes rapidly turning into bad investments, stats hoards starting to nosedive, souring sacks of human potential. On TV and radio and in newspaper match reports, 32-year-olds were – and still are – routinely described by 60-year-old commentators and journalists as "veterans", "warhorses" and "old-timers", players such as Teddy Sheringham and Zlatan Ibrahimovic touted as miracles of natural science for their ability to affect top-level football matches well into their mid-thirties.
Looking back, I'm not sure I was ever able to detect the knowing humour in this as a child – instead, you just kind of accepted that 30 was old, and after that life would be little more than a slow trudge towards death. What this does to the psyche and self-esteem of the football fan as they approach their third decade is ultimately unknowable and probably a discussion better staged elsewhere, but it felt like traces of it were detectable in the reaction this weekend to Walcott turning 30, to him hitting that invisible wall, the moment a seven-year-old Peep Show meme-prophecy was finally fulfilled and the idea of "Three-O Walcott" as a player of limitless untapped potential could definitively be exorcised.
As the old clip made the rounds, borne aloft on approximately 3,457 separate viral tweets and clickbait articles, it almost felt as though Walcott hadn’t simply turned 30 but had in fact retired or perhaps even died, much of the reaction tinged with a sense of mourning, a gag that carried with it that maudlin awareness of ageing and personal mortality that bites whenever some long-burning cultural fire returns reminding you of the time that has passed, asking to be snuffed out.
What were you doing in 2012, when the Peep Show gag – in which Jez says he's planning to make millions by selling the headline "Three-O Walcott" to a tabloid on the player’s 30th birthday – was first broadcast on Channel 4? The Queen was celebrating her Diamond Jubilee. John Terry was being stripped of the England captaincy. Trenton Oldfield was thrashing about in the Thames. A stray dog called "Xiaosa" was completing a thousand-mile cross-country journey of China alongside some British cyclists after one of them gave him a bit of food to eat. Jimmy Savile was being outed, the Shard was being opened and Whitney Houston was dying in a bathtub. Meanwhile, Theo Walcott was running up and down the same 50-yard patch of grass for Arsenal and England, winding up their fans while occasionally providing flashes of brilliance.
It was, in fact, what Walcott had been doing for six years before that and would go on to do for six more years afterwards, still wedded to the same angle of attack and 50-yard patch of grass today at his new club on Merseyside. It is widely understood now that Theo Walcott will never be as good as people wanted him to be. It is less recognised that this is fundamentally unfair, and something that has made the winger the carrier of a burden of anticipation since his teenage years that has meant the most interesting thing about him has always been what he isn’t, what he could be, what people hope he's not. For half his life, Walcott has functioned as a living, breathing reservoir of thwarted English ambition, a test-tube footballer blessed with freakish pace but denied the space to use it, a polite young man who has only ever really seemed to want to run fast and kick the ball in the goal, but who has found a whole nation’s weight of expectation, the world’s best defences and tectonic tactical shifts contriving to stop him from doing so.
To date, the career highlights suggest he’s always been a player with a skillset very specifically tailored to exceptional situations, thriving whenever football’s equivalent of martial law is declared. That hat-trick for England against Croatia and multi-goal salvos for Arsenal arrived in totally berserk, stretched and high-scoring games where all the players' heads seemed to fall off: two braces in 5-2 league wins over Spurs, joined by hat-tricks in a 7-3 victory over Newcastle, a 7-5 defeat of Reading and a final-day 4-1 thrashing of a disinterested West Brom.
Other pyrrhic personal triumphs emerge from the fog: the jaw-dropping pitch-length run against Liverpool in the Champions League quarters that yielded what looked like the winner for Emmanuel Adebayor, his first goal for Arsenal in the Carling Cup Final against Chelsea, both rendered redundant by defensive meltdowns from Kolo Touré and Philippe Senderos respectively. Perhaps – in a different, tougher team, under a different, less jaded and financially hampered manager – Walcott would have become a very different player to the one he is today, the player England dreamed he might turn into when he was the starstruck work experience kid interviewing his own teammates for a personal DVD diary at the 2006 World Cup. Perhaps not.
What's for certain is that now we’ll never know, as footballing lore decrees that the ghost of Walcott’s unrealised potential – as a grizzled and creaking 30-year-old human man – must finally be laid to rest, allowed to find its own quiet peace.