Chasing the Teenage Dream

Posted by Paul Tomkins on January 18, 2006, 09:56:45 AM

Fantasising about 16-year-olds is something I thought I'd grown out of. It's not exactly healthy for a man in his mid-30s.

But Theo Walcott is a football fan's fantasy. He's that great mythical thing: the wunderkind who most of us have not actually seen a sodding thing from (unless we have a worrying obsession with Southampton FC, or watch the Championship regularly; even then, you'll more than likely have missed his brief cameos).

It's even more weird to daydream about a player born a matter of weeks before Arsenal's grand theft at Anfield in 1989. In my case, Robbie Fowler, back in 1993, was the first player I 'idolised' who was actually younger than me. It's a strange dynamic; and now I'm faced with the possibility of Liverpool signing a player young enough to be my son.

I got about this far with this piece, before I saw headlines about Walcott to Arsenal being a done deal, and read Arsene Wenger's crowing. Oh well, I thought. But that was several days ago, and all is not as clear as it might seem.

There's been no official word from Liverpool, but it's hard to believe we are not making a move on one of those players everyone simply must have. Maybe we are going about it a little more quietly than our rivals.

Payment structures are the key to such deals. Pay £3-5m up front, a little more after 50 games, a little more after winning the league, a little more after a first international cap, and so on. If you end up paying £12-15m, it's only because he has fulfilled his potential.

So have Arsenal got it all wrapped up?

Ian Rush, in his Echo column, said "I was interested to read speculation regarding Southampton's Theo Walcott over the weekend. Most reports suggest he's on his way to Arsenal. If true, that's a bit of a shock to me because I met the lad recently and he's a massive Liverpudlian."

In FourFourTwo Walcott revealed the entire Walcott family were Reds, and that he went mad and almost woke up the village when we won the Champions League.

So Walcott is a confessed Liverpool fan. But we all know being a 'fan' means different things to different people. Most professional footballers seem casual fans to me; they've spent their time playing football, rather than watching it. They don't have the chance to build up a full rapport with a team. Having said that, enough footballers go to the club of their dreams, if given the chance; especially if it's Liverpool.   

Arsenal's main lure seems to be that Walcott's idol is Thierry Henry, while the new stadium will obviously be impressive. Of course, what Anfield lacks in ultra-moderness, it more than makes up for with sheer history. Arsene Wenger has an excellent record with young players –– although nearly always from the continent. Arsenal appear to be stepping up their efforts, maybe in desperation, with Henry publicly courting Walcott.

Given their similarities, I'm sure Walcott would feel he could learn more by training and playing with Henry than he would the strikers at Liverpool; but there are more than enough top technical players at Liverpool to learn from. And will Henry still be there in August? Or might he do a couple of years more at Arsenal, and then make the break? Liverpool FC will always be Liverpool FC; Arsenal won't always have Thierry Henry.

And of course, for the first time in nearly a decade, Liverpool look a better side than Arsenal. It's also not a bad cachet to say you're the European Champions.

Maybe Liverpool's secret weapon –– and not for the first time this season –– is Peter Crouch. Having an erstwhile team-mate to make a friendly, off-the-record phone call is never a bad thing, as well as a familiar face if you do make the move. Young players need someone to blaze a trail for them. The gamble Benítez took with Peter Crouch will not be lost on Walcott.

And of all the players in the Premiership, Crouch is probably the best partner for a small, nippy, skilful striker. Just look at every time he joins Owen on the pitch for England: the little man bags goals at a staggeringly improved rate.

Walcott sounds like the kind of player who would add an extra dimension to Liverpool's play, with his style –– pacy, but with sublime control –– different to Liverpool's main three strikers. A lot can go wrong for a player so young and under such scrutiny, but by all accounts he's a terrific lad with a great attitude. A Benítez player, if you will. He doesn't sound ready for the first team, but he would be pushing for a place in the squad.

The other top clubs are sniffing around, naturally. Would you sign for Manchester United at this point in time? Alex Ferguson is clearly not going to be there for the long-haul, and no player wants to join a club where a manager might change sometime soon. Also, if partnering Wayne Rooney excites Walcott, he knows he has Ruud van Nistelrooy to get past. United have the best individual strikers; it's midfielders and a defence they need.

Meanwhile, Chelsea's record under Mourinho with youngsters is, quite frankly, rather pathetic. But in his defence, why should he bother with kids who still need to mature when he can stump up £20m time and again for the finished article? 

There is not one youngster in the Chelsea squad (of those players who regularly feature) under the age of 22, with the exception of the fully-established Dutch international, Arjen Robben; Carlton Cole is getting on the bench now Drogba is unavailable. Shaun Wright-Phillips has gone there, for £20m, and disappeared off the face of the earth: a cautionary tale. Frank Lampard and John Terry were slow starters in their careers –– decent players who took time to become great ones –– and only cemented their places when Chelsea were up and coming; if emerging now they'd struggle to get the experience to improve.

So is Walcott worth the fuss? Search me. But enough top judges have confirmed he is the real deal.

Five goals in 12 games could be looked at more accurately as five goals in four starts. Obviously the Championship is not Premiership standard, but any 16-year-old excelling in a competitive league that still has loads of internationals plying their trade has to be taken very seriously. A 16-year-old impressing in the Conference would still be an achievement.

I get an uneasy feeling when any big team is linked with a young starlet from a smaller club, and part of me feels Walcott would be best left where he is, to give Saints some serious service; two or three years, at least. They didn't give birth to him, but they have nurtured him long enough. And as he's yet to sign a pro contract, they risk not making as much money from him as perhaps they deserve.

How would we have felt if Real Madrid had snaffled Steven Gerrard and Michael Owen aged 18? But if Walcott is going to leave, then there's only one place I'd like to see him go.

Much of the current problem with Walcott's ambition (to play in the Premiership) is down to Southampton's gross mismanagement at the top in the last 18 months, sacking managers and installing inadequate replacements, and generally showing a lack of consistency in decision making. They've made their own bed, in many ways.

If we miss out Walcott, there will be another young superstar along sooner or later, although they're still fairly rare. Rafa is building a team, and will find alternative solutions whenever he is thwarted.

But Rafa has certainly succeeded in making Liverpool feel like the kind of club you'd want to join for more than just the illustrious name built on distance success. If he can't lure Walcott, he'll succeed with others.

© Paul Tomkins 2006

On the suggestion of our wholesalers, there is another reprint of 'Golden Past, Red Future' underway. Unlike before, we will not be selling copies directly –– they will only be sold through retail outlets. More details: A PDF of the book is still available to download from my site.

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