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Jonathan Walters cements his legacy in Irish history with Euro qualification
Jonathan Walters is a no-nonsense footballer, a workmanlike player who rose up from non-league football before making a name for himself under Tony Pulis’ reign at Stoke City. Every now and then, a picture of a Stoke player with his arms around another player’s neck surfaces as Walters chose to turn pro-wrestler on Didier Drogba, of all players. In his five years at Stoke, he’s slogged through his fair share of cold, rainy Tuesday night fixtures and his athleticism and work rate immediately make him stand out on the pitch.
Off it, however, Walters is known for a his not-so-serious quips and lighthearted spirit. Last February, during Stoke’s victory at Aston Villa, referee Roger East went down with a cramp. “A referee with cramp! Can you believe it?” Walters laughed in an interview with the Daily Mail. “He needed to come off, didn’t he?” With East clearly unfit to referee, Walters held up an imaginary substitutes board to signal the change.
His ability to grasp himself from the moment is innate. In 2011, he told The Guardian: “There are going to be technically better players [than myself]. You see some very gifted players down the leagues who just haven’t had the luck.”
Walters’ luck came in the form of a bit of FA Cup magic. In 2007, he was playing for Chester City in a second-round FA Cup tie against Bury. Although Chester lost, Walters had his “bit of luck,” when Bury were ejected from the competition for fielding an ineligible player. Chester went on to play Ipswich Town in the next round, and after a tight two-leg tie, Ipswich chairman David Sheepshanks picked up Walters for £100,000.
“A lot of the lads I played with at Wrexham and Chester are playing in non-League now,” said Walters. “One of my best mates, Paul Linwood, was with me at Chester but he’s now with Fleetwood. Gregg Blundell, who partnered me up front against Ipswich, he’s at Barrow now. I think I’ve had a bit of luck along the way. It can happen if your timing’s right and you work hard.”
Walters is tough, but funny, an attitude that somewhat annoyed Roy Keane in Walters’ final days at Ipswich. The pair’s relationship deteriorated in mid-2010, when Walters expressed his wish to join a Premier League club. Keane tells of their bust-up in his autobiography and the pair only shook hands again once Keane became assistant manager of the Irish national team.
The road that the thirty-two-year-old took to Ireland’s national team is a long one. As a teenager he was scouted from Shaftesbury’s Under-16 side in Ireland by Blackburn Rovers. While Walters was prolific for Blackburn’s youth team, but after a “serious breach of club discipline” in 2001. The seventeen-year-old was picked up by Sam Allardyce at Bolton Wanderers, and spent his three years there on various loan moves to Hull City, Crewe Alexandra and Barnsley.
Although he joined Hull in 2004 on a permanent deal, after just two seasons at the club he moved to League Two outfit Wrexham to be closer to his daughter, Scarlett, who was suffering with health issues. She’s better now and Walters is also the father of her sister and brother.
Walters spent a year at Wrexham and then Ipswich before moving to Stoke. That phase of his career came full circle when Walters scored his first Premier League goal on October 2, 2010, against Allardyce’s Blackburn side.
“The mental toughness that you get from the lower leagues sets you up for when you are in games like this,” Walters told Mail Online at the time. “I know what Stoke’s all about. My strengths are Stoke’s strengths as well.”
But he adds that: “I’ll always work hard but I’m not just here on hard work. You have to have a certain amount of ability. I was taught as a striker, all my runs, my movement, getting in the box. I’ve only really taught myself to play as a winger.”
“In terms of evolving I’ve done that my whole career, from youth at Blackburn, then Bolton, going down the leagues and coming back up. You have to change your game constantly.”
This has helped Walters during Stoke’s transition from traditional, long-ball style football to more cultured possession-based play under Mark Hughes. Already, he’s scored two goals in eight league appearances this season.
Yet he hasn’t given up his work ethic. “Fitness-wise I tend to do more running, more high-intensity sprints, more recoveries than anyone. We have heart-rate monitors every day. You have to look after yourself off the pitch through diet. I feel great. I have six, seven years, without a shadow of a doubt,” he told the Daily Mail.
There was a moment, on October 8th, late on in Germany’s visit to Ireland, when Cyrus Christie broke forward down the right wing. Shane Long’s strike had given Ireland a precious lead and the Irish had been under the cosh ever sense. Yet Walters wouldn’t leave his teammate alone and busted a gut to break forward down the pitch. He was fed the ball and admirably used his powerful 6′ 0” frame to shield the ball. Although the move petered out, it gave Ireland valuable seconds of rest as they went on to win. Earlier that week, they had salvaged a draw in Germany and the tides were turning in their direction in Euro 2016 qualifying.
“We never said it was going to be a straightforward qualification,” Walters said back in October. “We said there are going to be ups and downs, peaks and troths. That’s what has happened. It’s never going to be an easy route.”
Today, that journey came to an end as Walters scored both goals Ireland’s 2-0 win over Bosnia and Herzegovina to seal a 3-1 victory in their two-leg playoff tie. The first was a penalty against his old Stoke teammate Asmir Begovic.
“I know he watches penalties but I suppose I double bluffed him a little,” Walters said in his post-match interview. “Some of them had a little kick of the penalty spot as well,” he said of the long build-up to the spot kick. “They were in my ear behind me just as I was about to take it but you’ve got to be mentally strong.” Walters has always been quick silence his critics throughout his rise from obscurity, whether it be with a rugby-style tackle or cheeky quip.
Homepage photo credit: Michael Kranewitter (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons