Monday 26 February 2018

'He’s a good manager, believe it or not' - Walters on being coached by fearsome Roy Keane

Simon Hart

It is a simple question and Jonathan Walters has a simple answer. Yes, footballers want Leicester City to win the Premier League too.

“Unless you are in one of the big teams – a Tottenham player or an Arsenal player – everyone wants Leicester to win it,” he says. “It is a great story and just shows money doesn’t buy everything.”

It is no surprise that Walters, of all people, would relish an underdog triumph. After all, this is a 32-year-old who, as with the hitherto unheralded pros over at Leicester, has seen the flipside of professional football.

On Sunday, he took the stage at Dublin’s RTE studios to collect the award for the Republic of Ireland’s player of the year for 2015 – his reward for scoring the two goals which overcame Bosnia-Herzegovina in the qualifying play-off for Euro 2016. Although he will miss Ireland’s friendly against Switzerland on Friday night with a hamstring strain, a key role beckons for the Stoke City forward at Euro 2016.

A decade ago, by contrast, his summer featured a departure from one League Two club Wrexham and arrival at another, Chester. “If you’d asked me at Chester, would I see myself here, I would have said no,” says the Birkenhead-born forward.

Not until he was 27 did Walters take the step up to the Premier League with Stoke and he offers a wry recollection of that preceding mid-noughties period, when he spent 18 months in the bottom division. “We were jumping on park pitches to train,” he remembers of his six months with Chester. “For away games we’d go past a park, jump out, put a few cones down and train on the way to the away game.”

It was a different world from Dublin’s Aviva Stadium – or, for that matter, Stoke’s smart Clayton Wood training ground, where he sits sipping from a cup of green tea on the day we meet. Walters’ appreciation of his good fortune is reflected in the way he plays the game. Martin O’Neill, his Ireland manager, has described him as the epitome of the side’s “spirit and never-say-die attitude” and his selfless approach, be it in a central or wide attacking role, ensures he remains an important player in today’s “Stoke-alona” team, too – as underlined by both the new contract he signed in November and the eighth goal of the season he scored at Watford last weekend.

Yet it was not always thus. Walters, as he admits, needed a few years for the penny to drop about his career. “Young lads in Premier League academies don’t realise what they have,” he says. “I didn’t when I was at Blackburn.” As an Ewood Park apprentice he was “young and stupid” and moved on after playing in the 2001 FA Youth Cup final. He had a spell at Bolton Wanderers and then helped Hull City climb out of League One but it took the birth of his eldest daughter, Scarlett, for his eyes to truly open.

When she was born with gastroschisis, a defect of the abdominal wall which causes the bowel to grow outside the body, football became of secondary importance and led to him dropping two divisions to join Wrexham. “I was living on a pull-down [hospital] bed with my wife,” he says. “I asked to leave to take my daughter back to Wirral because she was pretty bad at the time.”

It was Walters’ desire to grab his chance in the Premier League, with a move to Stoke, which led to his much-publicised falling-out with Roy Keane, then his manager, at Ipswich Town. In his autobiography The Second Half, Keane describes the pair squaring up physically – “effing and blinding, a bit of shoving” – and Walters himself acknowledges “there might have been a bit more than a heated argument”.

That came after Walters sent the club’s physio a photo of his own vomit to prove he had good reason to miss a League Cup tie against Exeter City, with Keane suspicious the player wished to avoid being cup-tied.

However, Walters speaks highly of the man who is now O’Neill’s No 2 with Ireland. “When we met up with the Ireland team I asked if we could have a word and we had a laugh about it straight away. We all make mistakes. I am man enough to get on with it and he is the same.

“He’s a good manager, believe it or not,” Walters adds. “I liked the way he ran the dressing room. He could be over the top. But over the top to me? No. No one could get away with anything. If you put a foot out of line or did anything wrong, he would let you know. He would let you know as a manager and I still don’t think there are many players that will do that with people. People get away with all sorts.”

(© Independent News Service)

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