at the Union Buildings in Pretoria
London – Arsène Wenger said on Thursday that Theo Walcott owes Arsenal a debt after the club took a “gamble” on him.
Arsenal spent £5m on the 16-year-old Walcott from Southampton in 2006 and he has made 238 appearances for them. As negotiations over a new contract drag on, Wenger said that Walcott owes them for giving him a chance ahead of more experienced players, weakening the team in the process.
“I believe what is important to keep the young players together is that at some stage I have stood up for them,” Wenger said. “'I played you at 17, 18, 19 years of age and I know I took a gamble.” It is easier to take a player of 25 and put him in the team. You know what you are getting.”
“If you put them in at 17 or 18, you have to stand up for them. You know you risk losing games while they are learning their job. Once you have produced them, you want to say, 'Okay, let's stay together and win together.'“
Having invested in the future by picking Walcott for years, Wenger believes Arsenal are entitled to a return on that in the form of loyalty. “I am happy to pay Theo the money he deserves,” Wenger said. “But I feel as well that I bought him at 17 years of age and spent a lot of money on him. I am a big supporter and I believe he is happy here. He has always looked to me like he is an Arsenal man.”
“Somewhere along the line they need to give back to the club what the club has given to them. After when a guy gets to 30, you can understand it is his last contract and if he feels he wants a change, I can understand that. This is a more sensitive age, but basically, it is a reward for our policy.”
Wenger was speaking the day after the confirmation that five of the Arsenal's young British players, including Jack Wilshere, had signed new contracts. Wenger believes that after losing several key foreign players, he will have more chance of keeping a British generation.
“When [Cesc] Fabregas says to me, 'I want to go back to Barcelona,' it is difficult for me to say, 'No, why should you?' He is from Barcelona. He has been educated there. In that sense it is easier with the English players. They feel at home.”
Robin van Persie, though, left Arsenal without returning home. He went to Manchester United instead. But Wenger said that was the ambition of an older player, and Walcott's case was different: “[Van Persie] was 29. Theo is 23. I believe it is important we keep him.”
Alisher Usmanov, who has a stake of just under 30 per cent in Arsenal but is not on the club's board yesterday said that Wenger had not had enough support from the directors.
The Uzbek billionaire questioned Arsenal's financial strategy in a television interview with CNBC. “For example, on the commercial side, I think there are also many questions about the effectiveness of the commercial management of Arsenal,” he said.
“Mr Wenger is one of the best coaches in the world. During the last five years he hasn't had enough support to provide his conceptions of his game from the board. This decision [selling Van Persie] was a mistake. If I was one of Wenger's players I would want to stay for the finish, but he explained Robin wanted to go to win trophies.” – The Independent