Tuesday 28 February 2017

Stoke star fired up for his moment in limelight

Liam Kelly

Liam Kelly

JON Walters has made a career of learning lessons and proving people wrong -- and now opportunity knocks once more in the football odyssey of the big Stoke City striker.

Walters, who only made his debut for Giovanni Trapattoni's team last November in a friendly against Norway, is poised to start against Estonia in the Euro 2012 play-off first leg against Estonia in Tallinn on Friday night.

At the ripe old age of 28, he is set to partner Robbie Keane as the Republic seek to lay the foundations for a big push to glory next Tuesday in Dublin.

With Kevin Doyle suspended, Shane Long injured, and Leon Best dealing with a groin injury, Trapattoni turns to Walters, and he's ready, willing, and able to take the call.

This is a player who started his career with Blackburn Rovers and Bolton Wanderers before embarking on a tour outside the elite level, heading on loan to Hull, Crewe and Barnsley before finally being signed by Hull in 2004.

serious

A year later life became more serious than football when his first daughter, Scarlett, was born with an unusual condition called gastroschisis, where a baby is born with the stomach and intestines outside the body.

Scarlett needed constant attention and later, some serious operations.

His daughter's condition necessitated a move to the north west of England to be closer to his family -- he was born in the Wirral -- and then Walters had spells with Wrexham and Chester, the latter in League Two.

Not a lot went right for Chester, but for Walters a third-round Carling Cup game against Ipswich in early '06 opened a new, positive chapter in his career when he impressed Jim Magilton, then the Tractor Boys manager, in that game.

Magilton signed Walters for £150,00; he later lost his job, to be succeeded by Roy Keane.

Like so many players, Walters got on with Keane at the start and was made Ipswich captain, but they fell out when Stoke boss Tony Pulis came calling with a £2.75m offer.

There was no fear of facing Keane and insisting he wanted to leave Ipswich, because Walters knew he had to take this opportunity.

"I'm not getting any younger. That was one of the factors in me wanting to leave Ipswich and go to Stoke in the Premier League. I wanted to have a crack at that and try to establish myself in the Premier League," he said.

Then it was up to him to make his mark, and he's doing plenty right because Pulis keeps selecting Walters for duty in the face of strong competition for places. That's a theme running through the Walters story.

"It happens at every club in your career where there are players ahead of you. When I first went to Ipswich, they bought me from Chester and some people said, 'you'll never make the step up'.

"When I went to Stoke people said the same thing. They signed Peter Crouch, Kenwyne (Jones) and Ricardo Fuller and Mamady Sidibe.

"There's a lot of competition for places, so I'm just happy to be picked every week at the moment."

His international qualifications come through his Dublin-born mother Helen Brady, who sadly died when Walters was only 12.

The 'Brady Bunch', as he calls the extended family, hail from the north side of Dublin, and he grew up well in tune with his Irish roots. There's a GAA connection as well, with cousin Ciara Burgess a Dublin camogie player.

Walters' international activity has been limited. He scored two goals for Don Givens' U-21 side against Switzerland away in 2003, and never got another call-up, and he had an outing in one of Ireland's rare 'B' internationals.

"U-21 was a strange one. I scored twice and I honestly don't know what happened after that. After that, going down the leagues for a few years, you're not going to get a chance of building your way up," he said.

"I was more focused on establishing myself with the teams I was at at the time, and anything that came along was a bonus. I've had bad timings with things, been desperate to join up some times and suffered bad injuries and had to pull out of squads.

"It's so frustrating, making your debut a year ago and hopefully trying to push on, but not being able to because of injury. But circumstances might give me a chance, and if I do get it, hopefully it'll go well."

Walters got just over 10 minutes in the closing stages against Armenia last month and did well. Now he and Robbie Keane have to forge a frontline that can help get Ireland past Estonia.

"I've played in the past two years with five or six different strikers and I've always adapted to each player I've been with," he said.

"I've watched Robbie for many years in the Premier League, and for Ireland, and I'm sure I can play well with him."

Irish Independent

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