Walters scored five goals for Ireland over the course of the European Qualifiers. Peter Morrison
Super Johnny Walters

Jon Walters: How a football league journeyman became pivotal for Ireland

Walters’ career could have been very different.

THE FOOTBALL LEAGUE is full of hard luck tales from players on what might have been and Jon Walters, who comes into the European Championships as one of Ireland’s most important players, could have easily been added to that ever-growing list of players who slipped through the system.

Walters, who helped guide Blackburn to the final of the FA Youth Cup in 2001, where they subsequently lost to Arsenal, was on the lookout for a new club aged just 17 after he was suspended by Blackburn for a breach of club discipline.

After several offers, Walters opted to join Blackburn’s Lancashire rivals Bolton Wanderers.

But despite making his Premier League debut while with the Trotters in 2002, Walters struggled to cement a place in the Bolton side and made the decision to go on loan to get more first-time experience at Hull City, Crewe Alexandra (although he wouldn’t play for the Railwaymen) and Barnsley.

Soccer - FA Barclaycard Premiership - Bolton Wanderers v Fulham Walters failed to make a significant breakthrough while at Bolton. EMPICS Sport EMPICS Sport

Not the most glamorous names or places in English football, but it was all part of the character-building process, turning Walters into the player he is today.

His most prolific spell during that period was on loan with Hull in 2003, where he scored twice on his debut, scoring five goals in total during his 11 league appearances and he eventually made the move to the Tigers on a permanent basis in 2004 for a measly £50,000.

Managed by Peter Taylor in League One, Hull finished second to gain automatic promotion to the Championship, but Walters was deemed surplus to requirements after just one season, as he managed just three goals in 41 games, with 30 of those appearances coming from the bench.

Hull City v Scunthorpe Utd Walters made his move to Hull City permanent in 2004. PA Archive / Press Association Images PA Archive / Press Association Images / Press Association Images

Taylor decided Walters, who spent a brief spell on loan at Scunthorpe United in League Two over the course of the season, was not the type of player Hull needed as they prepared for life in England’s second tier.

As Hull were looking up, Walters was looking down – and he joined Wrexham in League Two.

But it wasn’t until a year later when he moved to their bitter rivals Chester City that his once promising career started to gather any momentum. And it needed to.

Chester was to be Walters’ ninth senior club and he was still only 22.

His move to Chester caused even more tension between the two clubs, as Walters failed to notify Wrexham of his decision to leave The Dragons.

Despite Wrexham being in administration, they offered Walters a new one-year contract, but the Birkenhead-born forward opted to move to Chester instead, on a two-year deal and hasn’t looked back since.

On signing for Chester the penny may have been dropping for Walters and he vowed, “I will make runs and put in loads of hard work,” sound familiar?

Soccer - Coca Cola League Two - Shrewsbury v Chester - Gay Meadow Walters reinvigorated his career at Chester. PA Archive / Press Association Images PA Archive / Press Association Images / Press Association Images

Walters’ manager at the time was former Liverpool defender Mark Wright and under his guidance Walters was starting to fulfill his promise, scoring nine goals in 26 games in League Two but it was a twist of fate that would see his career reinvigorated.

Chester had just been knocked out of the FA Cup by Bury in the Second Round but after it was discovered that Bury fielded an ineligible player, Chester were reinstated in the competition and would play Championship side Ipswich Town in the Third Round, where Walters would catch the eye of Ipswich boss Jim Magilton.

So much so that the former Northern Ireland international would sign Walters just a couple of weeks later for £150,000.

During his three-and-a-half-years with the Tractor Boys, Walters became sought after by several Premier League clubs who liked his strong worth ethic, determination and that he was now starting to add goals to his game.

However, he was by no means prolific, Walters averaged a goal just over every four games as he moved between operating on the wing and as a centre forward.

But just like when he was at Wrexham, Walters showed a ruthless side to ensure he got the move he wanted once Tony Pulis and Stoke City showed interest – even if that meant getting on the wrong side of his Ipswich manager Roy Keane.

The relationship between Keane and Walters became strenuous at best, after the former Sunderland manager revealed Walters would lose his captaincy and would never play for him again while he was in charge, after Walters demanded to be allowed leave the club.

“It wouldn’t surprise me if some players are terrified of him,” Walters commented on Keane after it was revealed he decided to take “a picture of me puke” as proof that he was too ill to fulfill a fixture against Exeter.

“In my case, his words went in one ear and out the other. You never know where you stand with him and that was the fear factor he brought in. I respected him as a player, but maybe he can’t get his point across as a manager. There’s a way of going about bollocking people. At Ipswich, it became personal a few times,” Walters said.

But eight years after making his Premier League debut, Walters was back in the big time with Stoke City.

And he continued to become a fans favourite at the Britannia Stadium as his energy, reliability and let’s not forget, skill, saw him make a club-record 102 consecutive Premier League starts for Stoke over the course of the reign of Tony Pulis and Mark Hughes.

As Stoke City reached their first FA Cup final in 2011, it was an opportunity for sweet revenge for Walters as his two goals against Bolton in the semi-finals helped the Potters overcome his former side 5-0.

Britain Soccer FA Cup Walters scored twice against his former club Bolton Wanderers in the 2011 FA Cup semi-final. AP / Press Association Images AP / Press Association Images / Press Association Images

It was at Stoke that Walters made his senior international debut for Ireland, although born in England, Walters was always going to represent the Boys in Green.

“My mum passed away when I was 11 and I made the decision at a very young age to come and play for Ireland,” Walters said.

Commenting on people questioning his “Irishness”, Mick McCarthy recently said in his Paddy Power blog that ”My mother-in-law is 93 years old and originally from the Curragh in Kildare, and she sums it up perfectly: There are men from Ireland and then there are Irish men,” and Walters fits the latter.

After making his Ireland U21 debut while with Bolton in 2003, scoring twice against Switzerland in his only appearance for Don Givens’ side, Walters had to wait another four years, while at Ipswich to put the green jersey on again, against Scotland in a ‘B’ international.

It was Giovanni Trapattoni that gave Walters his debut in 2010 but it has been over the last qualification campaign that Walters has really started to feel at home on the international stage, scoring pivotal goals at crucial times, although his work rate was never questioned.

Just like for his club sides, adding goals to his game has taken Walters to the next level.

Football fans and pundits are often split into two groups, those who love to use data and statistics to back up any comments they are making and those who loathe them and believe that figures in isolation can hide important aspects of the game – and in many ways they are both right.

Robbie Keane and Walters were Ireland’s joint-leading goalscorers during the last qualification campaign, while all of Keane’s five goals came against Gibraltar, including a hat-trick in the opening 18 minutes at the Aviva Stadium, Walters’ five goals were spread over four matches against much sterner opposition.

The Stoke forward netted the first goal against Scotland in the 1-1 draw in Dublin, the winning goal at home to Georgia, a penalty against Poland in Warsaw that may have helped Ireland qualify automatically, and the two goals that helped send Martin O’Neill’s side to France against Bosnia in the play-off second-leg.

Speaking after Ireland had qualified for Euro 2016, Walters said that his mother was “smiling down on me tonight I’m sure,” and while there is bound to be an explosion of euphoria should Walters score in Euro 2016, there’s also going to be a tinge of sadness for Walters as he reflects on why he is wearing green in the first place.

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