Ex-Arsenal, Everton and England forward — now a team-mate of Nathan Tella at Southampton — is the inspiration for Burnley loan star

Nathan Tella has had unlimited access to his own footballing 'Valhalla' since starting out in the game as a schoolboy.

The Lambeth-born forward became an Arsenal fan around the time of "The Invincibles", prior to signing for the Gunners himself.

The Burnley loan star grew up watching legendary Premier League Hall of Famers including Thierry Henry, Dennis Bergkamp and Patrick Vieira as well as a host of other world class operators.

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Tella became a part of Arsene Wenger's dynasty in 2007, just after the 13-time champions of England had made the switch from Highbury to the Emirates, when other players, though one in particular, started to inspire.

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He said: "When I first got into football I was an Arsenal fan so back then you'd see Thierry Henry terrorising defences and that's probably the first person I looked up to and who made me come to the decision that I wanted to become a professional footballer and I wanted to be exactly like him.

"When I was growing up I started to look at Theo Walcott. Obviously he was young, came from Southampton, which is funny now because I've been able to play with him. I watched the way he played and I aspired to be like him as a winger. I felt we had a lot in common; he was fast and a very good finisher."

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The ex-England and Everton forward, who scored more than 100 times in all competitions for Arsenal, and was a two-time FA Cup winner, made the move to St Mary's almost two years ago, initially on loan from the Toffees.

It was just four months after Tella had made his senior debut for Southampton in the top flight in a 3-0 win over Norwich City at Carrow Road. He replaced ex-Clarets striker Danny Ings with just minutes remaining.

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The now 23-year-old goal-getter, who is of Nigerian descent, went on to get further minutes against Spurs and Burnley (at Turf Moor) the following season before finally getting the opportunity to play alongside his idol in a six-goal thriller against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge.

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"When I found out that we were signing Theo Walcott I think I called my Dad," said Tella. "It was a bit of a weird experience for me, but once he came we were both footballers and we both wanted to help the team.

"It was a pinch myself moment, but at the same time we were both fighting for the same position. I wanted to learn from him as much as I could. I was like a sponge and wanting to take in all the information he gave me, to hopefully make myself a better player.

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"When I first got into the first team I was quite shy. I think all of the younger players, who were in the first team, were the only ones I would really speak to. I wouldn't really try to engage in much conversation with the senior players. With Theo he was quite open and approachable so it was easy for me to speak to him, which brought me out of my shell."

SOUTHAMPTON, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 23: Theo Walcott of Southampton challenges Maxwel Cornet of Burnley during the Premier League match between Southampton and Burnley at St Mary's Stadium on October 23, 2021 in Southampton, England. (Photo by Eddie Keogh/Getty Images)
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The pair went on to feature against their former club together last December, with Mikel Arteta's side coming out on top thanks to goals from Alexandre Lacazette, Martin Odegaard and Gabriel.

Despite the defeat, however, it was an enlightening moment for Tella, who had climbed through the ranks with the likes of Joe Willock, Eddie Nketiah, Reiss Nelson, Josh Dasilva and Marcus McGuane.

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"I've only played against Arsenal once when I was at Southampton and we lost 3-0," he confirmed. "For me that was a moment where, even though Arsenal had told me that I wasn't capable of playing in their first team, it didn't mean I couldn't play in any first team.

"That was a very good experience for me. I tell my friends 'just because one person says you can't do something, someone else might give you the opportunity to do it'. It was personal satisfaction because it was something I wanted to do."