Saturday 23 March 2019

Walters closes in on 50 with spring in his step

Jon Walters. Photo: Reuters
Jon Walters. Photo: Reuters

Colin Young

Jon Walters is enjoying his summer holiday now. That goal, that scream, that run to the gigantic green trampoline in the corner changed his whole outlook on his break from football. He will sleep easy and enjoy himself for six weeks.

Austria is still an opportunity lost. They started better, when Martin O'Neill had promised us the opposite, but the Austrians were there for the taking. Thanks to Walters' 14th international goal, the team who finished above Ireland in the last World Cup qualifying group but also missed out on Brazil, are virtually out of the running for Russia.

Walters, on the cusp of starting his tenth wedding anniversary celebrations with his family, said: "It'll be a better summer after that goal. A defeat would have lingered a lot longer than this draw and you'd chew on it and hate it. Getting that goal means you can just enjoy the holiday and know it's job done. It'll be a good summer now, I'm 10 years married and we'll have a bit of a family celebration.

"You can relax and think about the goal. It had been on a couple of times and somebody always got back to make a block or tackle, but this one hit the defender's knee and after that it was just a case of easing him off, having to take the shot early because the defenders were coming in, and I managed to sneak it at the near post. It fell right for me. I was delighted with it but we were desperate for that second one.

"It was important to get the draw against Austria at least and in the end perhaps we should have won it 2-1 but it wasn't given. Darren Randolph made such an important save which changes games and then we got the goal.

"There was an awareness of the importance of the game and the way we wanted to play. You like to play on the front foot as a player but it didn't happen for whatever reason. We wanted to start the game at that tempo and get the crowd on side. You feel more comfortable when you're playing like that rather than sitting back. Didn't happen. But we knew second half, we had to come out like that and we did and we bombarded them and we have different options but that is what the squad is for. We have been missing various players but everyone works really hard in different positions to make up for that.

"It was much better and if we can be like that going into next four games that will be great but there is a long way to go and we've some huge games coming up now in September and October, four massive games, and we've got to attack them because every point in this group is going to be hard-earned. The next two are massive, we are still in it and you would probably say it is on our own hands, that's the thing.

"We knew there would be ups and downs in the group and so far that has been proved right. We are not a team that is going to cruise through qualifying like a Germany."

Walters' next appearance for Ireland will be his 50th, having made his debut just seven years ago under Giovanni Trapattoni. Now 33, he captained the side from the start against Uruguay and had the armband for the finish against Austria after Glenn Whelan had left the scene.

His five goals in the last qualifying campaign kept Ireland firmly on the road to France, only for the Stoke City striker to be denied a finals role by an Achilles injury. Last week's equaliser may have been his first of this tournament but his shifts as a wide man are even more essential to O'Neill. And with striking options so limited, he can play the No 9 role like a reliable old pro.

Walters has a year left on his contract with Stoke. He was reluctant to speculate on his future, but after seven years in the Potteries and with Russia in mind, he could be forced to move, or at least to contemplate one during this close season.

He added: "I don't know about the future. I've a year left on the contract, I want to play football and with the chance of going to the World Cup, you want to be playing.

"I wouldn't have dreamed of playing 50 games for Ireland or scoring 14 goals at the age of 26 when I made my debut. It will be a proud day. You want to play and score every day and when I play I give everything and it is good to get on the end of things. I will always try to make myself available, same at club level, I will always try to put myself through everything and let's hope there's a few more to go yet.

"Being injured is part and parcel of being a footballer, you have ups and downs, but there are far worse things happening in the world than me being injured for a big tournament. I did my Achilles at the training camp in Cork, I tried to get through it, but couldn't. You move on, now I want to get to the World Cup, we all do, we're all trying.

"Playing up front is actually easier than playing wide, the lads out on the wing like James McClean and Robbie Brady do an awful lot of running and then they have to get up and help me. You get a bit of a battering but I can give it back. I enjoy that side of it."

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