Should Arsene Wenger decide to unleash Theo Walcott at any stage of Saturday’s FA Cup semifinal at Wembley (live, FOX, Saturday, 12:30 p.m. ET), he might just remind the 26-year-old of the last time he faced Reading with a new contract on his mind.
An incredible League Cup tie saw the forward score a hat trick as the Gunners made heavy work of overcoming the Royals 7-5 after extra-time, having been 4-0 down at one point in the game.
It felt like a breakout performance, and one exquisitely timed. Walcott and his representatives were locked in a contract stalemate with Arsenal as the final months ticked down on his existing deal. Seven goals in nine games immediately following his Madejski heroics — culminating in another memorable hat trick in a 7-3 win over Newcastle — provided further evidence to Wenger that demands for a six-figure salary were justified.
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A new contract was signed by mid-January, with form and a prominent role on the pitch enabling Walcott to renew with Arsenal on his terms. Three years on, the landscape could not be more different. The one-time boy wonder is now 26 and, remarkably, the second-longest serving player at the Emirates Stadium behind Abou Diaby, but has made just five starts this season.
A devastating cruciate knee ligament injury that sidelined him for 10 months and shattered his World Cup dreams has allowed others to establish themselves ahead of him for club and country. Alexis Sanchez and Danny Welbeck are now Wenger’s preferred starters on the flanks, while Olivier Giroud is quietly on course for the best scoring season of his Arsenal career through the middle. England boss Roy Hodgson can call upon Raheem Sterling and Andros Townsend in wide areas, as well as the most impressive array of domestic strikers in years.
Arsenal invited Walcott’s camp back to the negotiating table last month and Wenger is braced for another drawn-out battle. "The first contacts have been established with the embassy," he told reporters. "We will see how that progresses politically. Walcott was difficult to convince [in 2013] and that is why it took us much time. We have started very early with him, but it was slow progress — he is very quick on the pitch, but off the pitch not always."
Looming over the talks will be Sterling. England’s new budding superstar is in no rush to discuss a new contract with Liverpool and admits it is "quite flattering" to be linked with a move to Arsenal. Few would be surprised if Wenger regarded the 20-year-old more worthy of a lengthy six-figure contract, while Walcott features on Brendan Rodgers’ list of potential replacements should he be forced to part with his prized asset.
Such a scenario is depressing to all those who watched Walcott burn brightly at the Emirates on numerous occasions before injury struck. "It’s a shame for him, and the fact that people are talking about him maybe moving on if someone else comes in makes me quite sad," Arsenal legend Ian Wright told Goal earlier in April. "I really like him at Arsenal but he’s got massive decisions to make in the next few months."
Wenger remains publicly adamant that he wants to keep Walcott and, given the Frenchman’s track record of loyalty to the players he develops and believes in, it is hard to see anything other than sincerity in his words. "I am confident [he will stay] because I believe Theo has a great future," he insisted this week. "He is just coming back from a very, very difficult injury. Every week he is getting better."
Where there is a will there is a way, but it will take more than mutual respect to yield a new contract that satisfies all parties. Walcott can only hope he gets the chance to strengthen his own position by tormenting Reading again on Saturday.
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