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'It was November and I’d played more games for Ireland than for Stoke'

Jon Walters says the desire to play regular first-team football prompted his move to Burnley.

Jon Walters remains an integral player for the Irish side.
Jon Walters remains an integral player for the Irish side.
Image: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Updated at 14.30

WHEN JON WALTERS was 18, he got first-hand experience of the harshness and cruelty of football.

At Blackburn as a teenager, he stood out. Graeme Souness, the club’s manager at the time, was a big fan.

The Merseyside native had been doing well and scoring regularly in Rovers’ reserve and underage sides.

After helping the club reach the FA Youth Cup final in 2001, he looked to be on the verge of breaking into the first team.

Suddenly, however, his dreams came crashing down.

The youngster came under fire for a serious ‘breach of club discipline’.

After being let go by Blackburn following this incident, he joined Bolton, a Premier League side at the time.

However, he made just four appearances under Sam Allardyce and was again deemed dispensable, going out on loan to a number of lower league sides before leaving the Reebok Stadium permanently in 2004.

The next four seasons were a battle to keep his footballing career alive. In all but one of those campaigns, Walters found himself toiling away in the Third Division/League Two.

The majority of footballers who leave Premier League clubs for lower league sides at a young age never return. Many are completely out of the game within a few years. Walters, however, defied the odds and ultimately got back to where he always felt he belonged.

There was no seminal moment, no lightbulb going off in his head that made him ultimately fulfill his potential, he insists.

“Training every day, the extra work you put in, the summers that you don’t stop, the way you live, your family. It’s just hard work.

The harder you work, the more luck you get. A lot of players down the years have players that have been unlucky though injuries. And a lot of good players haven’t looked after themselves and said they were unlucky.

“You need luck in certain ways with injuries, particularly career-threatening ones touch wood, but you need to plod on.

A lot of it is mental toughness. There’s a lot of players in the lower leagues that have unbelievable technical ability who were released from the top academies.

“When I went to Blackburn first, we had two or three boys in the England planning group that were the best players in the year. There were two in my group and one the year below. Two years later, they were finished in football after being the best in England at the time.

A lot of it is mental and having the hunger to keep on going. When you’re doing well, it would be quite easy to sit back and take your foot off but, as soon as you do, you get a kick up the backside.

“I’ll always be hungry by wanting to improve and looking for the next bit of edge on anyone else. I’ll be like that after I finish.”

Soccer - FA Youth Cup - Final - Second Leg - Blackburn Rovers v Arsenal Jon Walters pictured during his Blackburn days. Source: EMPICS Sport

Walters was playing with League Two side Chester, for whom he registered 10 goals in 33 appearances during the 2006-07 campaign, when he caught the eye of then-Ipswich manager Jim Magilton in an FA Cup tie against the Tractor Boys and was subsequently signed for £100,000 plus add-ons in January 2007.

It did not take Walters long to adapt to life in the Championship. The following season, he was named the club’s Player of the Year and Players’ Player of the Year awards.

Three seasons later, when Roy Keane was manager, he caught wind of interest from the Premier League in the form of Stoke. He bravely requested a transfer, leaving the Manchester United legend distinctly unimpressed, but the forward got his way ultimately.

The rest was history. Walters proved himself in the Premier League, becoming an important player for Stoke in seven seasons with the club, while also gradually establishing himself a crucial figure for Ireland, particularly since Martin O’Neill took charge, scoring 14 goals in 49 appearances overall.

Joining the Potters for £2.75 million in August 2010, he will ultimately look back on his time at the club fondly.

“I didn’t go there for a huge amount of money. I finished as Premier League top scorer in the years I was there, many players have come and gone, it was a huge turnaround in players in the seven years.

And to play so much, not so much as a striker and finish top scorer, at one point with 100 games on the run, we have done well for each other. I did well for Stoke and they did well for me.”

Yet that innate determination to keep on improving that Walters evidently has ultimately prompted the star to leave the club he had come to know so well.

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After receiving a phone call while on holidays in Portugal notifying him of Burnley’s interest, Walters had little hesitation in deciding to move clubs.

I got the call to come back so I came back on Thursday night and signed on Friday,” he says.

“It got to the point where it was November and I’d played more games for Ireland than for Stoke. That was on my mind and the possibility that it was going to be pretty similar at Stoke again this year. So I’m delighted with what happened and how it happened.

The circumstances changed last week but things happen, whether your face just fits or not and it was more than likely from the point that he brought Saido (Berahino) in in January.

“He didn’t do particularly well towards the end of the year; between January and the end of the year but look, he was always going to start the season. So with Bojan (Krkic) coming back, Pete (Crouch) there, Mame (Biram Diouf) there and the lads on the wings, it was probably going to be a similar scenario where I would have started the season. I might have worked my way in at some point, but now it looks as though I’ll be much more involved.”

The Ireland team The Ireland starting XI that played Austria last month featured five players currently on the books at Burnley. Source: Oisin Keniry/INPHO

The 33-year-old made 25 appearances for Stoke in all competitions last season, though a number of these were off the bench.

For Ireland, however, he remained an automatic starter. Walters was grateful that Martin O’Neill kept faith with him, and repaid the Derry native in the best possible fashion, scoring a vital equaliser in last month’s World Cup qualifier against Austria.

It gave me a lot of confidence that he (O’Neill) had that belief in me to play. I did a good job when I played, but towards the end of the games, I was lagging a bit, fitness-wise, because there is nothing like playing games. But to have that belief in me from the staff with Ireland was great.”

At Burnley, he joins four other players who started that Austria game — Kevin Long, Jeff Hendrick, Robbie Brady and Stephen Ward — with the Clarets, who face Shamrock Rovers in a pre-season friendly at Tallaght Stadium tonight, quickly being adopted as almost every Irish supporter’s ‘second team’.

“When we go away on international duty everyone speaks about their clubs, what the training is like, so you have an idea anyway what it’s going to be like,” he adds. “(The Irish lads are) a group that gets on well, so it makes it easier.

I played with them all a lot over the past few years and Robbie has been up there with the best I have played with. If he can do a few more (assists), I will be pretty happy, the Austria goal was one of them.

“Wardy has been in around the Ireland set-up for years, and I played with Jeff a lot, up front when Jeff is in behind, and Kevin has come in and done well over the summer. So I am looking forward to the start of the season, getting a few games under our belt, everyone is on a level playing field and you have to work yourself into the team.”

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Paul Fennessy

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