It’s been more than 15 years since Theo Walcott first faced Leeds United, writing his name into the Southampton history books as the club’s youngest ever goalscorer.
Today, as Saints and Leeds go head to head again on the same day Walcott agreed to commit his future to the club for a further two years, the forward tells the story of his record-breaking feat at Elland Road.
After eight substitute appearances, 16-year-old Theo Walcott was thrust into Saints’ starting line-up for the Championship clash with Leeds at Elland Road. Little did he know at the time the impact that night would have on his career – and that of his father, who lost his job in the act of making sure he didn’t miss the first of many…
“It was special in the fact that Harry Redknapp, who was the manager at the time, actually pulled me aside leading up to the game just to tell me that I was starting," Walcott remembers.
“He didn’t normally do that, but he just said, ‘look I want you to tell your family, because I know how much it means to you, and I just want you to have fun and enjoy it.’ That’s literally what he said! He said, ‘you’re ready, you can play at this level.’
“It’s funny, because I phoned my parents straightaway and told them the news, and straightaway my old man said, ‘I’ve got to go. I’ll be there.’ There’s a story of him having a bit of a tiff with his boss at the time, and he happened to lose his job because his boss said it was his son or his job!
“My dad wasn’t being out of order. He just wanted to get into work early, do everything he had to do, and get out a bit earlier – that was it. But his manager said no and that was that. It was an easy decision for him, so he was there for my first goal.”
Twenty-five minutes into the game, Saints were already 2-0 down, but Walcott halved the deficit. Djamel Belmadi lofted the ball forward, Paul Butler misjudged a headed clearance and the teenager pounced with a clean side-footed volley that bounced into the net via the arms of goalkeeper Neil Sullivan.
“You just want to get a nice connection and not be erratic with it, or anything like that," he continues. "As soon as you know you’re in space with the goal in front of you, you don’t really need to see where the goal is. It just happens, instantly. You just do it.
“I remember coming off after that game and the centre-backs saying, ‘I do not want that again.’ They got absolutely run around by me the whole game! I can’t remember who the centre-backs were, but they were big lads. Obviously I was very small and a little whippet!
“The goal itself was just a case of ‘guide it in’ really. Luckily for me, it just bobbled in, right at the last second. It was one of those when you think it might just be going wide, but I remember I ran after the ball, just to make sure it was in!
“I just remember the feeling afterwards, and the fans were in the corner… you never really know what to do for your first goal with the celebration, because everyone’s all over you and you’ve just got balls of energy and excitement that straightaway goes through your body. That was a really nice feeling.”
This is just a snippet of the full interview with Theo Walcott that features inside SAINTS, tonight's collector's edition matchday programme, which is available to buy online. The interview includes more of Walcott's Leeds memories, and a personal account of his emotional first season back at St Mary's.