It was a walk he’d made several times but this one was different for Theo Walcott. Instead of coming off the Emirates Stadium pitch and taking his seat in the Arsenal dugout, he would head in the opposite direction and sit with his new Everton team-mates.
As the winger trudged off towards the substitutes’ bench, his side already 4-0 down, he raised his hands in applause, not just saluting the travelling Toffees but also the Gunners supporters.
They in turn gave Walcott a standing ovation in acknowledgement of his efforts during a 12-year Arsenal career.
“All our fans knew Theo did not leave because he had any problem with the club,” said Arsène Wenger, who signed the wideman from Southampton when he was just 16 years old.
“It was because he wanted to play and wanted to give himself a chance because he didn’t get enough games here. Theo is experienced, is a real Arsenal lover and is a guy who always respected the fans and the club. It was completely justified and I’m very happy that he got a great reception.”
That game – which Everton eventually lost 5-1 – was just Walcott’s third for the Toffees following his January move north, and it was the first in which he had failed to make any real impression.
His previous two outings had seen him lay on Oumar Niasse‘s equaliser in a 1-1 draw with West Brom, before he netted twice in a 2-1 win over Leicester City. The Arsenal game aside, his good form has continued in recent weeks.
In his last appearance the England international shrugged off pre-match injury concerns to put Stoke City to the sword. Walcott completed 23 of his 29 passes (79.3%), created three scoring chances for his team-mates, was successful with four of his seven take-on attempts and set-up Cenk Tosun’s winning goal in the 2-1 victory.
He also weighed in with a surprising five tackles, tracking back well from his role on the right of the attacking trident in Sam Allardyce‘s 4-2-3-1 system.
“Theo has had a great start to his Everton career and he brings an awful lot to the team,” former midfielder Leon Osman told the club’s official website. “He provides a huge threat in behind the opposition and that suddenly gives them something different to think about.
Osman also insisted Walcott’s signing “is an incredible coup for the club,” but the cost of the deal for the 29-year-old – a £20million transfer fee and roughly the same again in wages over his three-and-a-half-year contract – make that coup an expensive one.
The pressure to live up to that price tag is unlikely to affect Walcott too much, however. During his time with Arsenal he endured a roller-coaster experience of emotions; travelling to the World Cup at just 17, scoring famous hat-tricks, netting memorable goals, suffering countless injuries, reportedly arguing with team-mates and his manager, and even being booed by his own fans.
His Everton career might only be eight games old, but even in the confined environment in which an attacker in an Allardyce side must operate, there have been signs that regular football is bringing the best from Walcott once again.
He has already played more minutes this season for Everton (674) than he did for Arsenal, and his contributions across the board have risen too as the table below highlights.
Of course, the impact at both clubs this season is affected by the small sample size, but almost every time he is in action for the Toffees, the proactive, dangerous player many implored him to be in the past has been fully on display.
He is running at opponents with gusto and has belief in his own ability once more. Walcott looks sharper, hungrier and more determined to succeed while his finishing and passing have both been much more accurate.
Upon arriving at Goodison Park, he revealed the opportunity to work with Allardyce again after their paths briefly crossed on international duty was a decisive factor in his decision to join Everton.
“Sam was one of the main reasons why I came to the club,” Walcott told Sky Sports. “I wanted a manager like that, who could get the best out of me. I had that short stint with Sam with England, and to see it now every day, the way the intensity of training is and how demanding it is, has been great. I want to improve the team and anything I can do to help, I will do so.”
As he usually is, Allardyce was much more blunt. “Hopefully he’ll be a big player for us,” was the main take away from Walcott’s unveiling in February. So far he has been just that.
He will have a chance to make headlines when Everton host Manchester City this weekend – Pep Guardiola’s men on the brink of securing the title but likely forced to field a vastly inexperienced left-back.
Oleksandr Zinchenko has shown promise, but is far from the finished article, yet injuries mean he could well be in the starting XI for City and will be expected to perform at the same level as his esteemed team-mates.
Walcott knows all about dealing with such expectation, but in his current form will hope to put give the young Ukrainian a torrid 90 minutes.