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Dublin: 22 °C Tuesday 19 June, 2018
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Picking Walters was a gamble that didn't pay off and now it could cost Ireland dearly

The forward is in danger of missing the rest of Euro 2016 after coming off after an hour last night.

Walters wasn't 100% last night.
Walters wasn't 100% last night.
Image: Chris Radburn

- Ben Blake reports from Versailles 

THERE WAS ONE name that jumped off the page when the teamsheets were handed out at the Stade de France an hour before kick-off yesterday.

The inclusion of Jon Walters among the starting XI will have given a lift, not just to his team-mates, but to the whole nation heading into what has been generally acknowledged as one of the trickiest groups at this summer’s tournament.

We’ve grown to love big Liverpudlian over the past couple of years simply because he is a true professional who wears his heart on his sleeve and leaves everything out on the pitch.

A charming character and one of the most popular men in the Irish dressing room, Walters has had to work hard to transform himself from a lower league journeyman into an established player at Premier League and international level.

And, as he has proved on several occasions in a green shirt, the 32-year-old also has a knack for scoring big goals in key games.

Doubts over his availability for the early fixtures at Euro 2016 first emerged during the pre-tournament camp at Fota Island, when the FAI revealed that he would sit out training for a couple of days after receiving a kick to the calf.

24 hours later, the player himself clarified in an interview with FAI TV that the issue was connected to knee surgery he underwent at the end of March, which kept him out of the Stoke team for the best part of a month:

“I had an operation on my knee seven weeks ago and when you come back you have secondary things,” Walters explained. “I had a little bit on tendinitis in both Achilles and on the training ground it flares up a little, you just have to settle it down.

You don’t want to push through it and then go into next week, the week leading up to the game pushing yourself through it. If you have a chance, settle it down, which we did.

“I have just been working in the gym the past couple of days, pretty tough and looking to go ahead again on Monday.”

When Walters did return to the training pitch, he was restricted to working away from the rest of the squad with fitness man Dan Horan up until last Thursday, when he took part in a full session.

The Friday saw training officially cancelled, although the team did travel to the Stade de Montbauron where O’Neill claims they walked through set-pieces. He also added that Walters was given the day off to recover.

That left him with two more full training sessions (and three in total) before the call had to be made on his availability for the Group E opener with Sweden.

The Ireland boss stated that he was “hopeful” Walters would play during his pre-match press conference and he got his wish as the medical team gave the all-clear and the forward did indeed line out alongside Shane Long at the Stade de France on Monday evening.

Jonathan Walters Waving to fans as he left the pitch. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

But although he held up the ball well, Walters was on the fringes for much of the 64 minutes he lasted before making way for James McClean. There were worrying noises coming from O’Neill directly after the 1-1 draw when he expressed his concern that the player had suffered a reaction.

And Walters himself confirmed those fears when he stopped to talk to the media in the mixed zone.

“I was sore after the first minute,” he said. “Training was good the past couple of days but I felt nowhere near 100% after the first minute or so.

I was struggling to sprint and jump but I got through the first half. I made a couple of runs in the second half and it tightened right up.

“I think the right thing was to come off and let’s see how it settles down the next couple of days.”

If Walters was struggling after just 60 seconds, it suggests that he wasn’t right and having been rushed back too early, the gamble didn’t pay off.

You can understand players willing to play through the pain barrier having made so many sacrifices to qualify for a major tournament and it is remarkable that Walters managed to soldier on for over an hour.

However, instead of helping the cause, it may actually have done more damage to Ireland’s chances of getting out of the group.

While we await a medical update from the FAI, Walters is almost certainly set to miss out against Belgium on Saturday and he could potentially be ruled out for the meeting with Italy on 22 June and even the remainder of the tournament.

The players who didn’t feature and those who came on as substitutes trained behind closed doors in Versailles this morning and Walters wasn’t involved.

As one of the team’s leaders, his absence will significantly weaken the team and you wonder if the safer bet was start McClean last night and allow him an extra week to get fit for the second match.

Listen to The42′s Ben Blake on the 98FM Euro 2016 Daily podcast throughout the tournament 

Here’s how European media reacted to Ireland’s 1-1 draw with Sweden

Euro 2016: Russia handed suspended ban over fan violence, fined €150,000

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Ben Blake

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