Byline: RAOUL SIMONS
HE'S BARELY out of school uniform, has only a handful of Southampton appearances to his name and had an absolute stinker in his last match, yet Arsenal are willing to pay up to [pounds sterling]12million for Theo Walcott.
The 16-year-old has emerged as the hottest young property in English football, with many inside and outside Highbury viewing him as a natural long-term replacement for record goalscorer Thierry Henry.
The reason why Arsene Wenger has moved to sign him now rather than wait for stronger evidence of his potential is purely down to the football economics.
As Walcott's former tutor Steve Wigley put it: "Why wait two years when the boy will cost you [pounds sterling]20m?"
Not since Wayne Rooney, who was the world's most expensive teenager at [pounds sterling]27m, has there been so much hype surrounding a player so unproven at the highest level.
However, the contrast between Walcott and the Manchester United star could not be greater.
While Rooney grew up in inner-city Liverpool and went to a local school recognised for grooming professional footballers, Walcott's upbringing was in rural Berkshire where most thoroughbred sporting talent usually ends up at Newmarket or Cheltenham.
As players, they are also polar opposites. Rooney's game is about harnessing power and physique to outmuscle opponents, whereas the slightly-built Walcott utilises his incredible speed.
The comparisons with the gazellelike Henry are obvious. As Wenger said: "I like the timing of his runs, his determined attitude, the composure he shows in decisive moments.
"Thierry is not a bad role model for him. There are similarities. Thierry was a wide player and Theo can play wide or central."
The second son of Reading businessman, Don, who was a sprinter in his youth, Walcott showed sporting aptitude from an early age.
He enjoyed athletics, basketball and cricket - his grandfather is a cousin of West Indies great Sir Clyde Walcott - but, from the age of 11, football was always going to be his priority.
He developed into a prolific goalscorer playing for both Downs School in Compton, Berkshire, and boys' club AFC Newbury.
He scored 100 goals …