Jonathan Walters: ‘We know how much this means so it’s up to us to set the early tone’
Walters backing Ireland to come flying out of the blocks in ‘red-hot’ Aviva as they bid to avenge night of pain and regret in Glasgow
'We just flies in a room, just flies that’s all. Got nowhere to fly, do we?' - Muhammad Ali.
If you follow Jonathan Walters on Twitter, you come to appreciate that professional football is more than just a half-way house between cartoon fantasy and some kind of lavish borstal for lost souls.
The anonymous hard chaws don’t land a glove on him because how do you hurt somebody who refuses to take offence? Sticks and stones and all that. So many heroes out there using their keyboards as a broadsword, so much incoherent rage.
The week before last, a rant from “jamie”, calling Walters “a w****r” with two exclamation marks for symphonic effect, told him he was a “Shite striker shite hair do and team is full of shite premiership rejects”, before signing off with the clever hashtag shiteshiteandmoreshite.
This after Stoke City’s best ever season, one that finished with a 6-1 trouncing of Liverpool. Most home wins, most away wins, best goal difference, record points total.
But “jamie” declares them shite.
“Your out of order pal [sic]” responded Walters. “I sat in @BarberBarberuk for at least 45 minutes sorting these grey highlights out!”
He smiles. The week before some chap hypothesised that Susan Boyle would be a better right winger only to be met by a response “I agree but can she do it on a Tuesday night at Stoke?”
So many see football as the red light district of modern sport, young men rolling through careers with such a skewed understanding of life, it must come as a surprise when one turns out to be so sharply self-aware.
Walters doesn’t do precious. Maybe, in that sense, he is perfect for Stoke City. Hard, combative, furiously proud in battle. Grown-up and grounded outside.
You try to figure out the things that make a man who he is and, in Walters’ case, it’s maybe too easy to draw simplistic conclusions. His mother, Helen Brady, died when he was just 12. His first child, Scarlett, was born with gastrochisis, a condition in which the stomach and intestines are outside the body. He got nothing easy in life, took nothing cheaply and grew into the 31-year-old he is today. A professional footballer you cannot help but like and admire.
He just gets it, you see. He understands the insanities fizzing around his everyday existence, the sense of living in a community of human brands, of half-people almost or “money-whores” as John McEnroe once put it. And he knows the importance of keeping that world at safe distance.
“In football, there’s always a story to be made out of something,” he says. “Jeez if Twitter was around when I was at the likes of Chester or Wrexham, you couldn’t put 99pc of the things that were being said online.
“But you go back to the clubs like that and there’s a real sense of togetherness and real good people. Especially in the lower leagues.
“It’s different when people get uppity. People think too much of themselves, far too much of themselves. You pick up a paper in a shop and the front page is about David Beckham doing something or a celebrity doing something, but a few pages in people are dying in war.
“Or there might be a story about children getting abused. Things like that. And you think ‘How can it be?’
“In England, I think the media can generally be very negative in their outlook. I have this conversation with my wife all the time, everything’s very negative, what he’s done or what she’s done. People like to read bad news.
“I mean I’m a complete realist. There’s a lot more important people out there than me. But millions and millions of things that happen, people don't see.
“The likes of, down the road from where we live, we’ve got the Clare House Hospice. A children’s hospice. The volunteers working there, they don’t get paid. They love their job, one of the hardest jobs in the world.
“They’re far more important than me. And yet they’re completely unseen, people who do things every day that you never hear about.
“I know football people have a bad name, but you can see why sometimes because there’s a few that think far too much of themselves and they’re given far more importance in the world than they should be.”
He recognises the delinquency almost inevitable in a game that pays in suitcases of money. The destruction of core values. Kids imagining they’re the business when, in reality, they’ve barely made the foothills of a professional life.
“You look at the Citys, Chelseas, their academies now,” he shrugs. “You see some 16-year-olds and the money they’re getting and it’s no wonder they think they’ve already made it. They’ll get to 18 and never play a game of professional football. But they’ll have made a lot of money and probably spent a lot too.
“And generally football is a working-class game because you get the best players from the streets, the lads who are playing outside every day in the fields. The likes of rugby and cricket are different, aren’t they?
“And because of social media now, anything is a big story. And the sooner that some of them realise that you can’t be doing anything... it’s dangerous.
“We’ve seen it a couple of times this year with whatever those lads (Raheem Sterling and Jack Grealish) were doing with balloons or whatever. I guarantee you 80 out of 100 young lads at the same age would be doing a lot worse.
“But you don’t realise at that age do you that you’re role models for people? And there’s such a spotlight on you. You get away with nothing now. You’re a sitting duck.”
He doesn’t want to sound here as if he’s reciting from some kind of footballers’ Cathechism mind. It’s just Walters knows how feckless this life can be. He wasn’t picked up by the game until his final year in school and the early years of his life as a professional were, largely, humdrum and low-profile.
He was at Hull City when Scarlett was born and, maybe, that pre-occupation with his child’s well-being tugged his attention even further away from football. He’d arrived there after spells at Blackburn and Bolton with the baggage of a kid whose focus was inclined to flicker and, for a time, his career seemed a perpetual stretch of loan deals involving names like Crewe Alexandra, Barnsley and Scunthorpe.
Scarlett’s difficulties then pulled him closer to extended family in the North West with moves to Wrexham, then Chester City.
He was a League Two player whose career looked on the downslope.
But the break he needed came in December of 06 with a replayed FA Cup tie against Ipswich Town that persuaded the East Anglian club’s manager, Jim Magilton, to sign him for £150,000.
Within 12 months, Premier League clubs were paying attention to Jonathan Walters.
“I think as any young player, you’re inclined to think that you’ve done it,” he says. “It’s the same with everyone. But you’ve got to keep running, you’ve got to keep doing it, day in, day out. Since probably running back down the leagues, I came to the realisation that one bad season and you could be out of the game.
“A lot of my friends aren’t playing now. Guys I started out with or even when I was at Chester and at Wrexham. A lot of them aren’t playing now, maybe trying to run their own business, you know struggling.
“I just think, in life, you have children and come to a realisation that everything’s for their sake. Any parent will tell you that.
“So, off the pitch, I’m constantly working now. For pre-season, I’m in before training, core-wise, gym-work, I don’t lift many weights. It’s all just about looking after my body. I’ll eat completely right, very rarely have a drink now. I think I’m a pretty good professional.”
At Stoke, Mark Hughes has – palpably – come to that same conclusion.
It was October before Walters became a regular starter last season but, thereafter, he pretty much became an emblematic figure in Stoke’s development from a hard-hat, one-dimensional team to the kind of side that can flick its cards mid-game.
He bounces between striker and wing now, endlessly educating himself on the nuances of both positions, just as he does with Ireland.
“I’m comfortable where I’m at now with Stoke,” he agrees “but comfortable is a dangerous word because you can get complacent.
“I know how the manager wants me to play, it’s going well, but you can’t really take it for granted. I’m a realist, there’s always people to take your place. The club are always going to be looking for players, especially attacking players.
“I guarantee you, they’ll be looking for two wingers and a striker this summer. Without a shadow of a doubt. So I’ve got to come back strong again. I think as soon as you start taking things for granted, soon as you start thinking that your place is safe, you move backwards. And that’s not the type of guy I am.”
High-energy is his primary calling card. That, and resilience.
After five years at Stoke, he has a sharp understanding of the things he can and — maybe more pertinently — the things he cannot do as a footballer.
He has been mercilessly lampooned for a single day against Chelsea in which he scored two own goals and missed a penalty, yet responded by scoring twice in his very next game.
If there was an obvious title for an autobiography in his name, it would surely be ‘Never give up!’
Where does that gene come from? He thinks instinctively of his Ma, Helen. She was a nurse imbued with that uncontainable warmth of an Irish mother, a woman everyone still tells him to this day “would do anything to help anyone”.
The daughter of a Clonliffe coalman who grew up “just around the corner from Croke Park”, she moved to Liverpool for work where she met Jim Walters. After illness took her, Jonathan remembers being hopelessly driven to honour her memory in schools races. He was especially good at cross-country.
Helen’s family remain a large part of his life now. One of her sisters visited him in Portmarnock this week as did a number of cousins, including Alan Collins who’d just broken his foot “playing GAA”, Walters giving him two pairs of boots as consolation.
He recites the places they all come from now, Fairview Park, Howth, Raheny. Next week, his brother, Aidan, gets married on the Wirral and there’ll be this massive gathering of the clans.
“It’ll be fantastic,” he smiles. “But it’ll be so much better if we’re coming off the back of an Irish win.”
The November defeat in Glasgow stayed with him throughout Christmas, he says. Just a hateful throb in the gut, a regret so deep it actually finds physical expression. Now as Scotland come to our patch, he sees it as time to light the right fires.
“It takes a long time to get over a defeat sometimes, especially when you have to wait so long to play again,” he says. “You carry it with you, it’s not nice. I sometimes think you remember your defeats more than you remember your victories. I’m the type of player who’ll do anything on the pitch to get that winning feeling — anything. You just keep working until your legs give way.
“So it wasn’t a nice feeling leaving Celtic Park that night, especially knowing that it was a set piece that got you.”
He believes that Ireland must set the tone today. It’s something they do at Stoke, just the simple assertion of a physical conviction that, on occasion, ruffles opposition feathers. Sometimes he sees teams take a kick-off and work the ball immediately back to their goalkeeper as if trying to thieve the early sting from a game. Everything in his DNA pulls against that. It just feels like an early expression of weakness.
As to the Scots, he knows the threat they carry. week he gets a close-up of the incendiary that is Charlie Adam’s left foot, a weapon so lethal there is — literally — no warning system worth presenting to Shay Given.
Walters simply feels that tomorrow must be seized by Ireland.
“Because we know what it means, we know that qualifying for tournaments gives everyone a huge lift in the country,” he stresses.
“You’re not playing for yourself as much, you’re playing for your family, you’re playing for the friends you grew up with, the teachers who taught you, I think you’re playing for your aunties, your uncles. It means a hell of a lot to them. Means a lot to the people you grew up with. That’s what it means to so many people, this game.
“You’ve got to set the tone in the first minute of some games, especially if it’s a home game. You’ve got to get the crowd going. Even if it’s just winning your first header or your first challenge.
“But you can’t get too carried away with it because you’ve got to keep the head too. You don’t want to cross a certain line but, when you go out on the pitch, you’ve got to be right into it.
“You want to start the game right, set the right atmosphere because the England game was pretty quiet for a long time. I was surprised with that, whether it was the early kick-off and people hadn’t had their few pints I don’t know.
“But hopefully this game will be red-hot, just like Celtic Park was when we played there. I hope it’s going to be on those atmospheres to play in, but we’ve got to set that tone from the first minute. That’s our job.”
Thereafter, he and wife, Jo, have no holiday booked with Scarlett (10), Sienna (6) and Ely (4). There are too many school sports days still to think about, too many end-of-term exams.
He is due to report back to Stoke on July 11, when they leave for a pre-season trip to Singapore. If he never leaves home in the interim, Walters won’t be unhappy.
“To be honest, I just like being home with the kids more than anything,” he says. “In football, you can travel half-way around the world and all you really experience is the four walls of a hotel room. So just being at home can feel like heaven and it really will feel that way if I can come home with a win over Scotland.”
In a mad, mad game, Walters already has a wealth that money could never access.