By Greg Stobart
He simply didn’t want it to end. After scoring a scintillating hat-trick in Arsenal’s sensational 7-3 victory over Newcastle, Theo Walcott made sure to salute every corner of the Emirates Stadium as he paraded the match ball.
Lapping up the adulation? Or a long goodbye? Either way, he was having the time of his life.
Arsenal fans have been desperately discussing their side’s need for a striker yet the most significant signing they could make in the New Year would be to tie Walcott down to a new contract.
It is desperate that Arsenal have allowed a situation to develop whereby one of their most valuable players is six months away from being able to leave the club on a free transfer.
Money will, of course, be a crucial factor in the ongoing negotiations, but if you ask Walcott about his situation, he will say that footballing considerations are at the heart of his thinking as Premier League rivals lurk in the shadows.
Walcott has considered himself a striker since the day he signed for the club in 2006 – and now he is being given a chance to prove himself in that role, to show why he was once considered a potential superstar and long-term replacement for Thierry Henry.
Arsene Wenger must be sick of having to talk about Walcott, not to mention the need for a goalscorer given the void left by Robin van Persie’s summer departure to Manchester United.
Yet just as Arsenal have stumbled across the solution, they risk losing another key player and going back to square one.
From January 1, Walcott will be able to talk to foreign clubs and Arsenal are savvy enough to know that the 23-year-old’s representatives will be well aware of the player’s options and earning potential elsewhere.
So the Gunners need to pull their finger out, forget about wage limits and think about the message it would send to actually keep one of their star players for once.
Walcott now holds all the aces having produced a wonderful display of finishing as he tore Newcastle to shreds during a hectic game in north London as Arsenal moved up to fifth in the Premier League on the back of four wins in a row.
Constantly lurking on the shoulder of the visiting centre-backs, Walcott’s electric pace and lethal finishing were simply too much for Newcastle to handle.
Henry has been working with Walcott in the past week as he trains with Arsenal, and the Gunners legend would have been proud of his protege’s first goal as he beat Newcastle’s offside trap and opened his body to slide a delightful finish into the bottom corner.
His second, 17 minutes from time, was the decisive moment of the game. With the score locked at 3-3 after Newcastle had pegged Arsenal back for the third time, Walcott spun in the penalty area and slammed an expert strike into the top corner.
He then played vital roles in the fifth and sixth Arsenal goals – both scored by substitute Olivier Giroud – firstly with a pinpoint cross and then a direct run into the penalty area.
In the dying moments, Walcott completed his hat-trick as he skipped along the touchline, had the persistence to stay on his feet and the awareness to clip the ball over Newcastle goalkeeper Tim Krul.
Newcastle striker Demba Ba has been tipped as an Arsenal target and scored twice here, but nothing could detract from the Theo Walcott show.
Arsenal now need to make sure their new central striker is still playing at the club beyond both January and the start of next season.