14/09/2011: Book review: Theo Walcott- Growing Up Fast

Much has been said recently about Theo Walcott's new book 'Growing Up Fast'. Walcott has been widely ridiculed for bringing out an autobiography at the tender age of 22, and with some justification. The Arsenal winger has been involved in top level football for just six years, and has yet to have achieved anywhere near the level of success to warrant his story being told. That being said, as a Saints fan I was still somewhat interested in what he had to say about his time at St Marys. He was around during a very interesting period, making his debut as the clubs youngest ever player in August 2005. Saints were experiencing a certain degree of turmoil at managerial level under Chairman Rupert Lowe having just been relegated from the Premiership.

Growing Up Fast is ghost written by the Daily Mirror's Oliver Holt, who also penned well received memoirs for Stan Collymore, Graeme Le Saux and Neil Warnock. Walcott's book isn't in the same class as any of those, but Holt does a fair job given what he has to work with. Growing up Fast covers all the major events in Walcott's young life, from his early days in Newbury to recent exploits with Arsenal. One of the most extraordinary things about Walcott is he only became interested in football at the age of 10 after watching Michael Owen score against Argentina in the 1998 World Cup. He got involved in the game almost by accident, making his first appearance in an organised match for his friend's team Thatcham Tornado's after another kid no showed. He grabbed a hatrick that day, and suddenly caught the football bug. A week later Walcott had a successful trial with AFC Newbury, and was told he had what it took to make it as a professional. He didn't even realise he could play football beforehand.

Walcott's account of his time at Southampton is perhaps the most interesting part of the book. He tells an amusing but slightly scary story about Dexter Blackstock and Leon Best being chased by gang members outside the clubs youth lodge. Theo said the atmosphere at the club was like a 'soap opera' when he first began to train with the first team. He spoke of the tension between Harry Redknapp's assistant Kevin Bond and Dennis Wise, who had been brought not only as a player, but also to help out with coaching. He also talked about the relationship between Clive Woodward & Simon Clifford and Harry Redknapp and his coaching staff. Walcott trained under both Clifford, who was briefly in charge of the youth team, and Redknapp who bossed the senior squad. He said the politics between the two sides got him down. When a number of big clubs began to show an interest in Theo he was called into a meeting with Rupert Lowe, which he said he found uncomfortable. He was asked if he felt happy at the club, but simply replied that he just wanted to concentrate on his football, and was puzzled by their curious approach. Walcott spoke highly of Redknapp and caretaker bosses Wise and Dave Bassett, but was less than complimentary about George Burley, who took over in December 2005. He said Burley had a few problems. "Sometimes he just wouldn't put in an appearance. And I didn't particularly like his style". Walcott said he had his doubts about leaving Saints, but his mind was made up by Burley who he said wasn't a big fan of him. The former Ipswich manager wanted to cash in on Theo, although changed his mind in January after a good performance in the FA Cup against MK Dons. By then it was too late however, a move to Arsenal was already in the works. Walcott makes it clear he was perfectly happy at St Marys, and might well have stuck around had he been made more welcome and the club wasn't in such a mess at the time. If Theo had been coming through now under the current structure you get the feeling he'd been more inclined to stay longer, with a much more professional setup in place these days.

Walcott is understandably fairly cautious when discussing his time at Arsenal, not wanting to burn bridges with anyone at the club, especially Arsene Wenger, who he clearly holds in high regard (Wenger is referred to as 'The Boss'). Perhaps the most interesting observation when it comes to events at the Emirates was the fact that many of his teammates were relieved when Thierry Henry moved to Barcelona in 2007, because it gave them extra responsibility. Walcott said Alexander Hleb would 'go into his shell' when Henry shouted at him in training, but grew in confidence after the Frenchman left. It makes Hleb's decision to join Barcelona in 2008 seem slightly bizarre however. A few more thoughts about Aresnal's recent struggles wouldn't have gone amiss. Walcott talks about the Gunners disappointing diplays in the past few seasons, but doesn't go into great detail as to why they have underperformed. In contrast, Theo is very open about his time with the England squad, and bravely criticises Fabio Capello and his preparation for the 2010 World Cup. He said the squad was divided into different cliques, and that he didn't get enough support from the rest of the coaching staff.

For all the negative publicity Growing up Fast isn't a terrible book. It's certainly not without its flaws, but Walcott is pretty honest throughout, and there's enough interesting stuff to make it readable. It's definitely not up there amongst the best autobiographies I've ever read, but I enjoyed hearing Theo's perspective on his Southampton exit. Those who say it's far too early for Walcott to be bringing out a book have a point however, with some chapters feeling like filler. I would only recommend Growing Up Fast if you have a strong interest in the subjects involved (Saints, Arsenal and England).