Jonathan Walters tells Daniel McDonnell why he’s ready to take his Ireland chance after walking difficult path on and off the pitch
ON FRIDAY afternoon, the eagerly anticipated good news spread like wildfire amongst Jonathan Walters' nearest and dearest.His phone buzzed with congratulations.
For the first time, his name had appeared in an Irish senior squad, with Giovanni Trapattoni indicating that the Stoke recruit will either be capped against Norway next week or in the Carling Nations Cup clash with Wales in February.
Three months after his elevation to the top flight, it represents another leap for a man who just four years ago was fighting to remain in the game while plying his trade for a club that no longer exists.
It was confirmation of a dream come true, a call-up with special resonance. Walters knows that his late Dublin-born mother would have been so proud and is determined to honour her memory and deliver happiness to the family who have provided support through some difficult times.
“If I get the chance to play, it would mean more than anything,” he enthuses. That moment is approaching.
THREE days earlier, Walters was mulling over the possibilities in the media suite at Stoke's impressive new Clayton Wood training complex. The Potters were only able to move in there in July, a month before the affable 27-year-old arrived at Trent Vale following an unusual dispute with a certain Roy Keane.
Clayton Wood is only a short drive from the Britannia Stadium and the club have been based in the area for some time. Before buying the land and constructing this purpose-built complex they used the adjoining Michelin Sports Club and as recently as five years ago there was an absence of dressing-rooms, which meant everyone got changed at the ground and hopped into the cars to make their way to the training pitch. The oft-muddy return trip did nothing for the upholstery.
Now, with a few years in the Premier League under their belt, they possess the wealth to live far more salubriously, although the staff endeavour to retain a down-to-earth attitude.
Five years ago, Walters was grounded in his own reality, living a nightmare that every parent dreads. His first daughter, Scarlett, was born with an unusual condition called gastroschisis, a condition where a baby is born with the stomach and intestines outside the body. “It's not as rare as you might think,” he says. Scarlett spent the first months of her life in hospital, periodically in intensive care. An operation to put the organs back inside met with complications and, following a brief stint at home, more surgery was required.
For Walters and his wife, Jo, it was a stressful experience that left football in the shade. At the time he was a Hull City player, but in name only.
“We lived in the hospital,” he recalls. “I spoke to the manager, Peter Taylor, and I wasn't going to be playing. I wanted to stay fit, I wanted to stay training so I was still going in every day because that takes your mind off everything. And then it was back to the hospital.
“It was really touch and go at the start. There was a problem with the first operation but after a while she had another operation to put them back in and since then everything has been fine, touch wood. That was tough but it makes you realise what you've got.”
BY his own admission, he didn't always appreciate his lot prior to that. He'd arrived at Hull in 2004 with baggage. The promising talent was dropping down the leagues after failing to break through with both Blackburn and Bolton. With the latter he gained Premier League experience but also a desire for a night out and the good life. Loan stints with Hull, Crewe and Barnsley precipitated his permanent departure to The Tigers.
“When you're young, you don't appreciate it,” he recalls. “You don't do the extra bits that you should and don't realise the opportunity until it's gone. Like with a lot of things in life. There'll be other lads the same, lads at Stoke now who'll have the potential but never seem to do it. I've sort of grown up now into who I am.” Scarlett's difficulties ultimately instigated his exit from Hull. She required special care and Walters asked Taylor if he could leave in order to move closer to extended family in the north west. Chairman Adam Pearson facilitated the request.
So he moved to Wrexham for a year and then to Chester, an entity on its last legs. He was a League Two player with a young family, conscious that he was one setback away from drifting out of the game completely. “For me, it was always the aim to come back up the leagues, yet for 99.9pc of footballers that never happens,” he says.
He needed a break and secured it in roundabout fashion. In December of 2006, Chester lost a second-round FA Cup tie to Bury. It transpired that the victors had fielded an ineligible player and the place in the third round was awarded to Chester. They took Championship side Ipswich to a replay and Walters did enough in the two games to convince then Tractor Boys supremo Jim Magilton to splash out. Other clubs had expressed an interest without taking a punt.
For £150,000, the East Anglians had nabbed an individual who would make a rapid impact. So much so, in fact, that Stoke and Wigan made enquiries within his first 12 months at Portman Road. Bids were refused and a new contract was offered, thus providing further security for Scarlett and Walters’ second daughter, Sienna. A call-up to the Ireland ‘B' side was another reward to add to the solitary U-21 cap achieved earlier his career, when Walters scored both goals in a win over Switzerland before joining the long list of youngsters to get on the wrong side of Don Givens.
However, while club-mates Damien Delaney and Alex Bruce were called to senior squads in the early days of Trapattoni's tenure, no invitation was extended to Walters.
Soon, he would have a new club manager cheerleading his cause. Keane rolled in midway through last year, a tsunami when compared to the breezy life that went before. It made life both confusing and interesting for the squad in situ.
At first, everything was rosy. Walters largely escaped the grief meted out to others and was promoted to the captaincy with public praise from Keane ringing in his ears. Behind the scenes, however, they had no real relationship.
“THERE was none of that with Roy,” he explains. “He just didn't speak to you much about the playing side of it. There was no extra dealings. It was strange sometimes. It wasn't all doom and gloom. When you're doing well, you're more concentrated on the football and you're happy. But he's a one-off really. There are different things...”
Walters' falling-out with Keane has been well documented. Stoke came knocking again in the summer and the player was interested. He was stripped of the armband after missing a Carling Cup tie due to a virus. Keane insinuated that he was missing the game for scurrilous reasons; Walters sent a picture of his vomit to prove there was no theatrics involved. A £2.75m bid from Tony Pulis ended his spell in the naughty boy’s corner.
“I didn't see the fallout coming,” he admits. “I know everyone had an earful from him. I was one of the ones who'd never really got one. I've had numerous managers and you learn to take different things from each manager. If I get a bollocking or a telling off, I can take it.”
For the up and coming stars at the club, it was harder to swallow. The example of Owen Garvan is raised. Keane was his idol and yet the Dubliner soon realised he was in for a rough time. “He didn't get much of a chance and, when he did, he got an earful all the time,” observes Walters, who is glad his old team-mate escaped to Crystal Palace.
His most interesting criticism of the Keane regime is the effect of his decision to let some established members of staff go. Bryan Klug, head of the highly respected academy which has delivered a production line of talent, was relieved of his post at the start of 2010 and now works for Spurs. Such departures affected morale.
“Bryan had been at the club for probably 20 to 25 years,” says Walters, “and there was Charlie Woods, who was Bobby Robson's number two. Good coaches and good people to have around who were all let go for one reason or another under Roy. “That was disappointing. They were good people to work for and part of what the club is about. Ipswich is a bit unique, it's in the middle of nowhere and it means so much to everyone in the town. When they got let go... all the lads respected them quite well... and that was Roy's decision.”
In the Stoke dressing-room, he can compare Keane war stories. Danny Collins, Danny Higginbotham, Kenwyne Jones and Rory Delap were all at Sunderland during the Drumaville adventure and experienced the unpredictable temper.
“As soon as I got here, everyone asked what I had done,” laughs Walters. “Liam Lawrence was here before he went to Portsmouth as well. They were laughing because they knew exactly what I'd been through.
“Even now I speak to the lads at Ipswich and when they get beat, well, we know what's been said before we even speak to anyone. We guess, ‘Aye, this is what's been said this week' and we ring all the lads and that's what happened. It's eggshells all the time.”
In contrast, he finds his new environment far more settled, with a unity of purpose from the top down. Pulis has faith in Walters and has given him plenty of feedback as well as game time. The demands of Premier League football have asked more of his body, in addition to a better appreciation of the merits of team shape.
“It seems that everyone is six foot plus, as fast and strong as anything and all very comfortable on the ball,” he says. “If you make one mistake, you get punished.”
He has learned that in a difficult spell for the Potters, who badly need a positive result when they host Birmingham tonight.
Mind you, he picked the right time to get off the mark in the Premier League, grabbing the winner against Blackburn with Marco Tardelli in attendance last month. With Ireland short of striking options and Trapattoni keen for back-up with physical strength and the versatility to play wide right, then Walters has the attributes to make a positive impression on the Italian.
Although he grew up on the Wirral, the opportunity will be cherished. Walters is from a tight-knit family who've never lost touch with their roots. His mother, Helen Brady, from Clonliffe in Dublin, came to England to work as a nurse in hospitals around Liverpool and met his dad, Jim, there. She was a home bird, though, and every time she could make it back the kids were brought along, mostly camping at Gyles Quay near Carlingford.
“The Brady Bunch,” he smiles. “They're all crazy.” Tragically, Helen passed away when Jonathan was 12. The huge clan rallied around and remain in constant contact.
He randomly lists off the locations of various Brady cousins with impressive detail. An aunt in south Wales, a cousin in London and another who moved to Switzerland. His first cousin, Ciara Burgess, plays camogie for Dublin, and he's still getting grief from that side of the family for missing recent get-togethers due to Stoke commitments.
Next week, football finally delivers him an excuse to visit. The length and emotion of the journey will make the rewards all the sweeter.
Stoke v Birmingham, Live, Sky Sports 2, 7.45