By Arsenal correspondent Tony Hughes
For someone who has grown up in the public eye, Theo Walcott has had a remarkably unblemished career.
He has steered clear of controversy, behaved impeccably on and off the pitch and presented to the world the more appealing face of the modern footballer.
As one of his advisers said shortly after Walcott joined Arsenal as a 16-year-old, “Theo knows where the boundaries are”.
This articulate, sensible and most considered of young men does not snap or lose control. Not in public, anyway.
Which makes his Twitter outburst on Thursday about his Arsenal contract talks all the more significant.
Appearing to respond to a claim by former Arsenal defender Nigel Winterburn that Walcott had been involved in a heated argument with his club manager Arsene Wenger, the forward tweeted: “I don’t normally comment on false stories about myself but reports about contract demands and bust-ups with the boss are complete nonsense.”
Walcott then went on to contradict his manager’s claim that contract negotiations, aimed at extending his £90,000-a-week deal beyond 2016, had started. “There have been no talks,” he insisted.
These were not words that were sanctioned by Arsenal’s heavily armed and all-controlling media machine. They were a deliberate act of defiance, to present Walcott’s side of the story, even if that meant locking horns with Arsenal and directly contradicting the version of events articulated by Wenger.
But Walcott was not shooting from the hip. His tweets were part of a specific strategy done in collaboration with his long-standing and trusted agent Warwick Horton, who has guided Walcott’s career since he was a Southampton schoolboy.
In short, ‘Team Walcott’ want the world to know that the player is not happy with life on the Arsenal fringes, or the club’s attempts to persuade him that his future belongs at the place where he has spent nearly a decade.
When it comes to contract talks, and transfers, issues are rarely black and white. There is always plenty of grey area, as there is in Walcott’s situation.
True, Arsenal and Walcott are not deep in negotiations over a new deal. But there has been contact between the two parties to mark out ground in the game of poker that represents modern-day contract talks.
As revealed by Football Insider earlier this month, Walcott’s representatives approached Arsenal chiefs before Christmas, rather than the other way around, to assess the club’s interest in opening talks on a fresh deal.
With the player out of contract again in 15 months, the Gunners were keen to learn Walcott’s starting point in negotiations. They were slightly alarmed to be told that Walcott wants a five-year contract that will put him on a par with top earners Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil, whose basic salaries are worth £130,000-a-week.
Arsenal have yet to respond to Walcott’s request for what amounts to a £33.8million commitment over five years from a club whose £166m annual wage bill remains well below those of Manchester United (£215m), Manchester City (£205m) and Chelsea (193m). The player is in limbo.
Two years ago when Walcott negotiated his last contract, he had a strong hand and played it. A nailed-on starter scoring freely and in the final six months of his contract, the England international negotiated a deal running until 2016, with the option of an extra year, that lifted him into the top bracket of earners at the time at Emirates Stadium on £90,000-a-week.
By contrast, Walcott is not as integral to Arsenal’s attacking plans as he once was. In the four-and-a-half months since recovering from the anterior cruciate ligament injury that sidelined him for 11 months, he has started just five matches and made 12 appearances in all. In their last match, a notable 2-1 win at Newcastle United, he was an unused substitute.
Walcott has slipped down the pecking order for the first-team attacking roles at Arsenal, behind Sanchez, Ozil, Olivier Giroud, Danny Welbeck, Santi Cazorla and the injured Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain.
This is the background to Walcott’s tweets. Unsure of his standing, he is laying the foundations for something concrete elsewhere.
In short, if Arsenal don’t want him enough, he will look to move on. Just turned 26, Walcott will not be short of suitors. Forwards with pace to burn and their best years ahead of them are rare gems, and Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester City will be monitoring his situation closely, just as they did in 2013.
Wenger wants his longest-serving player to stay. But not on the terms demanded so far by Walcott.
The sense is that Walcott’s social media antics are merely the opening exchanges in what promises to be a long-running saga.