The Arsenal players had been in a hushed state of shock as their plane departed Tyneside on Saturday but, as they taxied on the runway upon arrival back at Luton airport later that night, the chorus of mobile phone alerts trilling through the cabin heralded consolatory news.
The frenzy of Twitter and text messages confirmed Manchester United’s unbeaten record was no more. “It changed the mood, the boss’s mood as well,” said Theo Walcott. “Everyone had grins on their faces. Suddenly it was a point gained and something we can build on.”
A much needed positive spin had been applied to a traumatic occasion. Arsenal’s title challenge and sense of conviction remain intact.
Some psychological scars will inevitably have been inflicted by the concession of a four-goal lead and Arsène Wenger’s side may yet tremble should Wolves rally against them on Saturday with their wounds still so fresh from the debacle at St James’ Park. Yet Walcott’s honest assessment of their failings, even as victims of the contentious refereeing decisions that so infuriated the manager, should stand them in good stead. The winger hopes to take out his own lingering frustrations on Denmarkon Wednesday while his club-mates are apparently united in a desire to learn from their mistakes.
“You have to give credit to Newcastle, who taught us a lesson and showed us how to play against 10 men,” said Walcott. “We are known for keeping the ball and we just didn’t in that second half. It just didn’t click and, when their second goal went in, it hit us quite a bit. We’ve been reduced to 10 a few times this season and managed to keep the ball well enough but we couldn’t do it on Saturday. Newcastle switched it well and opened us up and their set pieces took us by surprise. None of us wanted to look the boss in the eye afterwards, that’s for sure. It was such a disappointment: when you are 4-0 up and want to win the league, it shouldn’t happen – even if you go down to 10 men.
“Newcastle did very well, taught us a lesson, albeit with a bit of help from a couple of penalties. But there’s no point sulking on it now. We have the character in the team to recover from that, people who will stand up to be counted.
“There are so many people in our side who will respond in the right way but even the boss would have gone home thinking it’s a point gained in the end. We can build on it, particularly after the first-half performance. That was the best first half I’ve been involved in since I’ve been here. And, really, it is looking good for us. We are only four points behind and United have still got to play Chelsea twice.”
The winger still considers this season as his best opportunity yet to win silverware as an Arsenal player – “This is the year we need to,” he acknowledged, with the side still contenders on four fronts and his own form compellingly persuasive. His initial flurry of goals has been checked by the ankle injury sustained with England early in the victory over Switzerland back in September, but there has been a consistency to his game in recent weeks to suggest growing maturity.
The opener on Saturday was the 11th goal of his most productive season yet and his importance to Arsenal grows more evident with each week. Fabio Capello will hope his influence is as significant with the national side, starting in Copenhagen where the player will hope a 16th cap would yield a first goal since the hat-trick in Zagreb which sparked England’s World Cup qualification campaign back in 2008.
Walcott offers the Italian bite and balance on the right and, while he has started four of his country’s five games since the start of the season, he clearly still feels he has a point to prove after his omission for the tournament in South Africa.
While Walcott, like his club-mates, had been wary of catching Wenger’s eye on Saturday evening, he had sought out Capello prior to the Euro 2012 qualifier against Bulgaria back in September to get an explanation for missing out on the summer squad.
“I didn’t want be too eager and in his face straightaway, so I waited until the Bulgaria game and spoke to him after training, literally on the training pitch,” Walcott said.
“He’s the sort of man you can go up to and ask anything and he will help you, and I wanted to know why I hadn’t gone. I’ll keep what he said between us.
“I was happy with his answer. I had moved on – I didn’t want to dwell on missing out because that would have killed me. I needed a mental break as well as a physical break and it has helped me out. I looked at myself and my game and tried to see what I could do to improve.
“I guess it’s nice the manager has come out himself since and said he made a mistake not taking me. It’s in the past and I just want to make sure it never happens again. It’s time to take my England career on to the next level.”
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