Five years at Arsenal: So how close is Theo Walcott to fulfilling his potential?

It is five years since Arsenal signed the 16-year-old, but the England star still divides opinion

THE date January 20 possibly does not mean too much to most Arsenal supporters, but it does for Theo Walcott.

It was on this date, five years ago, that Walcott signed for the Gunners from Southampton, catapulting the then 16-year-old to instant fame and, five months later, Sven Goran Eriksson’s World Cup squad.

Five years on and Walcott is, finally, a first-team regular at Arsenal. But the journey has been a long and at times painful one, and the player is still far from the finished article.

It has been a career beset by injuries and false dawns, with shoulder problems and then ankle and knee injuries sidelining him for parts of all of his four full seasons at the club, and again this year.

His first goal for the club had arrived in the 2007 Carling Cup final defeat to Chelsea, and the birth of a new star was heralded.

But by the time he ran the length of the pitch at Anfield to set up Emmanuel Adebayor for a goal in the Champions League quarter-final in April 2008, little progress seemed to have been made.

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In September 2008 the watershed moment in Walcott’s career seemed to have arrived with his stunning hat-trick for England against Croatia in Zagreb.

But, again, the consistency and strength to play at the top level still seemed to elude him. Another big-game goal against Chelsea in another defeat, this time the FA Cup semi-final at Wembley in April 2009, only served to underline his lack of progress, although he was handed a new long-term deal at Arsenal a month later in May, 2009.

That summer his participation in the European Under-21 Championship for England annoyed Arsene Wenger intensely given that his young charge had been in the senior squad earlier in the summer, and the manager’s concerns were borne out as Walcott started just 15 times last season in another injury-blighted campaign.

He did not complete 90 minutes until December, and even a goal and electric substitute’s performance against Barcelona in the Champions League quarter-final first leg could quite convince anybody that, at 20, this was a player ready for the biggest stage of all.

Fabio Capello clearly thought just that and, although it was a major shock when he was omitted from the England squad for the World Cup in South Africa in June, anybody who had watched him regularly for Arsenal knew the Italian had good reason not to take him.

It would take a thick-skinned individual not to spend the summer feeling a little introspective, and Walcott is a player who wears his emotions on his sleeve. It hurt like hell to be dropped, he later admitted, and there were a few tears but also, it seems, a steely determination to prove his doubters and detractors wrong.

They would have to include the former England midfielder turned pundit Chris Waddle, whose assertion after an international friendly that Walcott had ‘no football brain’ is one that seems to have stuck with him.

However, his summer absence from England’s World Cup shambles proved to be a blessing in disguise, and he returned fit and refreshed to the Emirates and scored four goals in his first two games.

Typically, his blistering start to the season was then interrupted by injury, an ankle problem sustained on England duty in September that cost him the best part of two months of the current campaign.

But he again returned with a bang and two goals at Newcastle in the Carling Cup at the end of October followed by a Thierry Henry-like finish – again in a losing cause, the unfortunate habit of his career – in the Champions League at Shakhtar Donetsk.

Inconsistency is still a problem, but a season that has so far seen him score 10 goals in 12 starts, including one and one assist in the December dismantling of Chelsea, cannot be judged too harshly.

Another goal and assist at West Ham on Saturday merely underlined that progress and the signs are there that, at 21 - an age where many players make there first steps into the first team - Walcott is closer to fulfilling his potential.

Wenger seems to concur, having selected Walcott ahead of Andrey Arshavin for that win over Chelsea, and the first-choice ranking the player has so craved appears to be his.

However, there are still far too many times – like at Ipswich last week – where he plays as if still that little boy lost at the 2006 World Cup, taking photos and sightseeing while the real men played the games.

His season so far suggests that the boy is almost a man, but not quite. Much like Arsenal themselves, the feeling is that Walcott must achieve something tangible before he can be judged anything approaching a success.

This could be his time, and there are many supporters – of Arsenal, England and football in general – who will hope that is the case.