Spurs v Arsenal: How Gareth Bale and Theo Walcott came in from the cold
17:15 28 February 2013
PA Wire/Press Association Images
Walcott and Bale are men of the moment as Spurs and Arsenal clash in north London derby
They are both having the best season of their careers and they have both become key players for club and country, but in the lead-up to Sunday’s derby showdown there will be a lot more talk about Gareth Bale than Theo Walcott.
That should come as no surprise given the Welshman’s astonishing form that has seen him score eight goals in his last six games for Spurs, the latest being the venomous 30-yard drive that earned his side all three points at Upton Park on Monday night.
That was his 19th strike for Tottenham this season – one more than Walcott has managed for the Gunners. So, while there is little doubt that Bale is the man of the moment, Walcott – the older of the pair by four months – is also finally fulfilling his early potential.
However, it has not always been this way. The Welsh wonder followed Walcott’s path from Southampton to north London with one rather important difference – while Walcott came to Arsenal in January 2006, 18 months later Bale chose White Hart Lane.
“I don’t remember Arsenal being interested in me, to be honest,” said Bale this week. “But anyhow it wouldn’t have made a difference as I made my choice to come to Tottenham on footballing decisions.
“I thought they were a club on the up and while other clubs wanted me to start off in the reserves, Tottenham said they wanted me to challenge for a first-team place right away. And that was the most important thing for me.”
Looking back, you wonder how much Walcott’s difficult start to life at Arsenal around that time would have influenced the young Bale’s decision.
Walcott did not play at all for the Gunners that first season Wenger signed him, and he went to the World Cup in the summer of 2006 as a 17-year-old without a top-flight game under his belt. Famously he then spent that tournament sightseeing rather than playing for Sven-Goran Eriksson’s England.
The following season, 2006-07, saw Walcott start just five Premier League games for the Gunners, although he did score his first goal in the Carling Cup final defeat to Chelsea in February.
Watching on from Southampton, young left-back Bale had just played an impressive 40 games in his first season at St Mary’s and had caught the eye of many Premier League scouts.
Among them was Spurs’ sporting director Damien Comolli and the Frenchman, once employed by Wenger, captured the teenager’s signature for just £5m.
It could just prove to be one of the best bits of business Spurs have ever done, even for a club who have made huge profits from the sales of the likes of Dimitar Berbatov, Michael Carrick and Luka Modric in recent years.
Bale, like Walcott, began life in London slowly, starting just 20 Premier League games across his first two difficult seasons at White Hart Lane as first Martin Jol and then Juande Ramos were removed from the manager’s role.
Under Harry Redknapp, Bale’s ‘jinx’ status was revealed, with the young Welshman not participating in a victory for a record 24 league games until finally doing so against Burnley in 2009.
Redknapp, however, was soon to get the best out of Bale, moving him from left-back to midfield and reaping the rewards.
Still only 20, Bale scored what proved to be the winning goal in the derby win over Arsenal in April 2010, Spurs’ first over the Gunners in the league for 11 years, as Tottenham finished fourth and qualified for the Champions League for the first time.
The European stage suited Bale, who came to global attention with his brilliant hat-trick against Inter Milan, much as Walcott had done with a treble on foreign soil for England against Croatia two years earlier.
While Bale was lighting up White Hart Lane, over at Arsenal Walcott was floundering. Plagued by injury problems and poor form he had been left out of England’s squad for the 2010 World Cup by Fabio Capello and was still not a first-team regular after five years at the Emirates.
However, his England rejection seemed to finally put fire in his belly. He ended 2010-11 with 13 goals in 25 starts and the following season, after forging a fine understanding with Robin van Persie, he contributed 11 goals and 12 assists as the Gunners pipped Spurs to third place and, ultimately, the Champions League.
Walcott’s brace in the 5-2 north London derby win a year ago was arguably the moment he silenced his critics at the Emirates, and he has not looked back since.
Like Bale, Walcott is his club’s top scorer this season and, like his former Southampton academy team-mate, he has also figured in a more central position this term.
Walcott scored the fifth goal in the ‘second’ 5-2 win last November, when Bale was also on target as the 10 men of Spurs suffered at the Emirates.
Walcott will, in all likelihood, be back on the wing at White Hart Lane on Sunday, but Bale will certainly be in the centre, and be the centre of attention.
However, as Spurs have found out in the past year, ignoring the threat of Walcott can prove a costly mistake.
Much like the game itself, their meeting on Sunday promises to be a mouthwatering one, and one that is too close to call. Only one of these former Saints will be praised come Sunday night.