Thursday, January 20, 2011

Oxlade-Chamberlain, Walcott and Bale: All just a little bit of history repeating

Manchester United want Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. So do Chelsea. And Arsenal. And City.

Southampton boss Nigel Adkins is a very shrewd operator on the transfer market after his time in the Championship with terminally-short-of-cash Scunthorpe. Three times he turned small money forwards into big dollars: he made a 2000% profit on both Billy Sharpe's move to Sheffield United and Gary Hooper's transfer to Celtic and trebled his money in Martin Paterson's Big Burnley Adventure. To mix Adkins' transfer smarts with the chunky bankroll sported by Southampton ownership makes for a formidable operation.

But should Arsenal, Chelsea, United or City wave a briefcase at the Saints containing a rumoured 10 Million, no club in League One could resist, no matter how much cash the owners have. In the furore surrounding Southampton teen Oxlade-Chamberlain, it's interesting to go back to the last great Southampton youngsters to move to the EPL. It was back in 2006-07 when North London duo Arsenal and Tottenham smashed-and-grabbed their way to Theo Walcott and Gareth Bale.

These two are both, like Typographical Tyro Oxlade-Chamberlainare both wingers, though Bale started out as a full-back. Southampton were treading water in the rising floodwaters of debt pocketed sums of ₤9.1 million for Walcott and ₤5 million rising to ₤10 million for Bale.

They started their big league careers in opposite directions. Walcott was Sven-Goran Eriksson's 2006 World Cup squad dark horse and played with an Arsenal team who led the league as late as February. Bale struggled to adjust to a struggling Tottenham's style and with the rigidity required to play fullback. It's easy to forget now after his outstanding 2010 that for the longest time - 24 games, a record - he didn't play in a winning Premiership match.

Bale is now worth perhaps ten times that initial ₤5 million investment and at 21 is liable only to improve. He is comfortable in his position, has a manager who trusts him and forwards to aim at. Some say his combination of pace, crossing and finishing skills make him the best left-sided player in the world, with plenty of time and appetite to improve.

Walcott has also increased in "value" but his is a different story. Rather than improving and diversifying as a footballer, he's been mired in injury, inconsistency and accusations of being a one-trick pony. Endowed - or perhaps cursed - with Thierry Henry's iconic number 14, the these factors haven't allowed him to become the potential world-beater Arsene Wenger saw in the Saints forward. He's got talent and has produced the occasional unplayable game - his treble against Croatia for England a notable one - but if two years ago you asked a football pundit who would be the better player every one would have plumped for Walcott over Bale. The development has apparently stalled.

With Darren Bent recently being sold for upwards of ₤20 million it's likely Theo's blend of pace and youth would command a hefty transfer fee, but have his fifteen Arsenal goals (from 100 appearances) justified Wenger's initial investment. All that glitters in League One is not, apparently, gold.

The recipe to create a successful footballer needs plenty of ingredients: talent, physical gifts, the right headspace and a lot of luck. Walcott has been unlucky with injuries, just as Bale was early in his Spurs career. But Bale has already repaid the money Tottenham invested for his services while with Walcott, it's debatable. He may very well turn into England's Centre Forward of the Future but so much time has passed now that rather than being expected of him, it is now just a fond hope.

Like trading futures on the stock exchange, throwing money at youth doesn't guarantee instant rewards. It may not guarantee rewards at all. Sometimes, like with Jermaine Jenas, it isn't even the buying club who gets the benefit. Not by a long chalk has time run out for Theo Walcott but his development is now a matter of "if" and not "when".

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