LONDON, September 1 – Four years after Theo Walcott was thrust into the limelight as the shock name in England's 2006 World Cup squad, Arsenal's boy-wonder believes he is finally ready to become a man on the international stage.Walcott was barely 17 when Sven-Goran Eriksson baffled the English public by including him in his squad for the World Cup, even though the former Southampton winger had yet to make his debut in the Premier League.
That selection story has hung like a cloud over him ever since, raising expectation to a level that was only surpassed when, three years later, he scored a hat-trick during a World Cup qualifier in Croatia.
The fact that Walcott has struggled at times to deal with such huge expectation is hardly surprising when you consider he has also been beset by injuries and seen his first team chances at Arsenal limited by strong competition in Arsene Wenger’s star-studded squad.
But, having been left out of Fabio Capello’s 23 for this year’s World Cup finals in South Africa, Walcott sees the start of England’s Euro 2012 campaign, which begins with a home match against Bulgaria on Friday, as the right time to underline his credentials.
"It’s an important time for me," he admitted. "Back in 2006 I didn’t deserve to go to the World Cup – I hadn’t even played in the Premier League and I hadn’t justified being there at all. But it was a great experience for me, no doubt, and being with the team now is second-nature.
"This year I wanted to go but the form wasn’t there. I didn’t have the best season last season. Obviously having so many injuries stuttered the whole season and I think now I’m a bit more mature.
"I’m looking after myself a bit better. I’m staying behind after training. I’m talking to people when I can, having a go at people too – in my career, so many people have a go at me, but now if they do something wrong I tell them as well. It goes both ways. I just feel as a player, I’ve grown."
That maturity has been reflected in his performances for Arsenal this season, being named regularly in Wenger’s starting eleven and scoring four goals, including his first ever Premier League hat-trick.
But, such is the nature of Walcott’s profile, even that has not been enough for some people.
BBC pundit Alan Hansen was highly critical of Walcott recently, suggesting although he scored a hat-trick against Blackpool he was still under-achieving and lacked the ‘football brain’ needed to become a top player.
"Everyone is entitled to their own opinion," said Walcott, "It’s one of the things I have to live with. But the people I listen to are Arsene Wenger, Mr Capello, the players and my family.
"As long as I can continue to listen to them, hopefully, it will be fine and I can do the talking on the pitch."
Walcott certainly appears to have reacted well because recent performances in the Premier League suggest he is adding a final ball and a more thoughtful attitude to his undeniable pace.
"Don’t forget I’m still 21 and at 21, playing for Arsenal and England is not a bad achievement so far," he said.
"But I do feel that I’m maturing. When I scored my hat-trick against Croatia, I wasn’t really involved that much. I just scored a hat-trick. A lot of people don’t remember that.
"I am a lot more involved in every game now; I am not just scoring goals, my involvement in general play is getting much better. My target this season is to get between 10 and 15 goals and 15 and 20 assists.
"I also I know I need to be tougher and I have been going to the gym a bit more. When I was 17 or 18 if I got kicked I probably would have stayed down. Now if I do get kicked, I just get up from it."