Smiling assassin Jon Walters is deadly serious about success
Jon Walters' cheeky chappie image masks a fierce determination to take down the big sides
For all the usual perceptions of Stoke City as a difficult place to go, you certainly wouldn't think any of it to be true from a visit to their Clayton Wood training ground. It's just before Christmas and, in the cosy reception room, manager Mark Hughes and many of the players - some of them Champions League winners - are freely mixing with everyone by the big festive tree as they pass through.
Peter Crouch and Glen Johnson eventually arrive through the glass door, having got their daily one hour and 40 minutes train from London, apologising for the delays. There's a bit of crack about that, and a generally good vibe and unity about the place. Jon Walters has arrived much earlier, as is standard for him, and is having a laugh with the club's media team.
When he sits down for an hour-long interview before training, though, there's one serious line that sums up the club, the player and also his international team. He's discussing Stoke's daunting next two fixtures - Liverpool away on Tuesday and Chelsea away on Saturday - so it's an attitude that's worth emphasising.
"I think there's something quite satisfying about playing against a more technical team and out-working them, and beating them that way."
Walters, of course, has always put those words into action. The otherwise relaxed and chatty 33-year-old has almost personified the underdog approaches of both Stoke and Ireland for so long, and it is natural that he is now seen as a leader in both. It would be unfair and incorrect to dismiss Walters as someone who just focuses on the physical side, though.
His most recent goal was proof of that. Walters deftly lifted the ball over Burnley's Tom Heaton in Stoke's 2-0 home win at the start of December, instantly guiding a medium-height cross with one touch. It was his 40th league goal for the club, meaning he is their top scorer since getting promoted in 2008, emphasising how he's better placed than anyone to talk about their ongoing evolution. It also provided a positive end to what has been a more difficult year for Walters.
Only 12 months ago, after all, he seemed to be at an individual peak. His goals and general play made him one of the most important players in Ireland's qualification for Euro 2016, as was recognised with the reward of FAI player of the year. It was just a pity that the tournament itself didn't get to truly showcase that talent and influence, owing to a March injury that curtailed his summer and, indeed, his entire 2016. Walters only ended up appearing in two games, coming off after 64 minutes in the 1-1 draw with Sweden and coming on after 65 in the 2-1 defeat to France.
"Yeah, it's been difficult," Walters says. "When I scored [against Burnley], someone said 'it's your first goal since March', but I had an operation in March, then I came back, started the last game of the season, then tore my Achilles a few weeks later and sort of missed pre-season."
Walters is philosophical about not being able to give the account of himself in France that he did in qualifying.
"The Euros was a great experience, something you'll never forget, with the family being there, the atmosphere. I was on the bench for two of the games. I couldn't play but I was sitting there, wearing kit and trainers. You're still immersed in it. When you get to the stadiums and see. . . there are no fans like it. It's great.
"It was disappointing [not to play] but these things happen, don't they? It just makes you more determined to have a right go for the World Cup. From the disappointing Poland tournament, it's nice to have been involved in one where we did a lot better, but now we want to qualify for the World Cup and create some more [experiences]."
Walters was back in the Ireland team for the start of the new qualification campaign, but there was also sense that this was a new team; or at least one that had moved onto a new level. In that sense, Euro 2016 might not have been a collective peak in itself, but the start of something; the beginning for a new core of players. It was something Walters was struck by in France.
"We had a very difficult group, and the performances we put in were excellent," he states. "The lads that played - huge amounts of praise for some of the players, they've really grown into international football, some of the younger boys. The likes of Jeff [Hendrick] and Robbie Brady, James McCarthy, Seamus [Coleman].
"It's good to see, because I was hearing last year about good players retiring, 'where's the next set of players coming from?'. But I think they're already there. I think we've got a very good strong young core.
"We knew we had good players anyway. I've been banging on about some of the players for years. Jeff Hendrick, we should sign him here [at Stoke]. I think he's a very good player. Robbie Brady, I don't know why he's not in the Premier League, the goals he's scored and the performances he's put in. Seamus Coleman. . . people have grown. That's what tournaments do.
"We've still got some good young boys there, like the likes of young Callum O'Dowda I think is a very, very good player at Bristol City, and hopefully he can produce in the next couple of years. Then we've got that core of boys still there.
"There are still players coming up with us, joining in training, under 21s, and it's nice to have a couple of lads from the League of Ireland as well, some good players. You look down the years, a lot of the players in the team now are late developers, came from the League of Ireland, came to England and the Premier League late.
"Then going into this campaign - which was another very difficult group - we started off really well. I think that's the lads that have grown up in the Euros."
They are also doing what Walters considers should be a core trait of the team, and out-working everyone. He feels it was key to the landmark win away to Austria.
"The last qualifying campaign, Austria were unbeaten. They had a disappointing Euros, yes, but probably they would have been the favourites to go through. It's still a long way to go yet. They still could go unbeaten, win every game between now and the end of qualifying, so to go to places like that, it's satisfying. And we've done that over the years. Germany probably stands out. We know you can rely on the person next to you to dig you out when you make a mistake. We all work for each other. Every other team has big individuals but I think, as a team, we work really well together, whoever comes in."
Again, there's that 'satisfaction', as Walters puts it.
"We know what we need to do. We've got a formation and we know how to play. You go out there with a plan, and I think Martin [O'Neill] is very good with how he deals with the team. If it's not going right at half-time, he'll tell you exactly what needs to be done - and Roy [Keane] will be the same."
The Irish squad aren't the only one of Walters' sides to have undergone an evolution of late. There have been times when Ireland were so similar to his club outfit in terms of style and how they put it up to superior opposition that you could well have called them the Stoke of the international game.
It certainly felt like that in qualifying for Euro 2016, but it doesn't quite fit so well any more. That's because the Britannia Stadium is now graced by a different status of star. The dynamism of Champions League winners like Bojan Krkic and Xherdan Shaqiri is a world away from the directness of the Tony Pulis era, except that Walters is one of a few pillars still standing tall from that time, having joined in 2010. Of the current squad, in fact, only Ryan Shawcross and Walters' international team-mate Glenn Whelan have been at the Britannia longer. They have ensured that Stoke retain an old resilience amid the new direction. In some ways, the club are one of the Premier League's understated success stories, and a model of how to change your identity without losing what makes you.
"The manager likes us to get it down and pass it from the back, and get through the pitch with the ball quickly," says Walters. "But there's a huge variety, and there's still some players from the old manager. In certain games we haven't had to pass it, we've gone direct. Whatever the game calls for, we'll do."
Some of the new players have also done what Stoke have called for, as Walters explains.
"Someone like Marc Muniesa, he had to be a certain weight at Barcelona, and he's come here and probably added six or seven kilos in muscle mass just to cope with the league, because it's a tough, demanding, physical league."
From the way Walters starts to talk about it, you get the sense he really does relish that side, that's it more than just part of the job.
"I think you need that determination, that grit for this league, and it's more of a tougher mentality, because you're going to get knocks, you're going to get the physical side of the game in the Premier League and I believe it doesn't matter if you're 6ft 5in and well-built, or small - you still need that mentality. It's more so that than the actual physical side of it."
There's also, apparently, a vocal side. During Euro 2016, Wayne Rooney publicly referenced how Walters was one of the most notorious in the Premier League for saying things to try and get a rise out of opposition players. You get a slight sense of how that could be true by his good-natured joshing with the media and his Twitter feed, but he insists he was a little taken aback by the England captain's comments. There is a wry smile as he says it.
"It came out of the blue that one! I don't know, I might have been when I was younger. I don't think I say much now."
Then there's the caveat.
"If someone's giving a bit on the pitch to me and my team-mates, I'll stick up for them. If someone's getting unfairly targeted or anything like that, I'll be the first one to let them now. When I was younger, I might have been a bit chipper . . . but I don't think as much now. I think the league's probably changed in terms of that. You don't get much of that on the pitch any more. Half the players wouldn't understand [English slang], but that's when you learn a few foreign words! For that exact reason. You say something to certain players, and they laugh, because they know you're just messing around. There's a respect there . . . but if it's there to be put about I'll be in there to mix it about."
It's all in keeping with the approach that has fired Stoke's fine record against the top sides - and fires what could be a mantra for Walters and his two teams.
"Those teams are going to have better players than you - United, Chelsea, Liverpool, Arsenal - there's no point thinking they don't. But I think what we've had here over the years is a know-how and a determination to play against those teams. Out-working them and beating them, that's quite satisfying, in any way of life. I think we've still got that in the team. People say it's a difficult place to come to, but it's only as difficult as your results. You've got to produce."
If it is a mantra, it's something Stoke should be repeating over the next few days, as they face possibly the two most difficult away trips of the season. Chelsea maybe even pose one of the biggest challenges in football right now, since no one has yet been able to figure out how to even get a draw against their 3-4-3 formation.
As Walters discusses the widespread use of the system and the different difficulties it presents, however, there's suddenly a pause.
"I prefer it . . . if I'm playing up front, I prefer playing against three at the back, because there's space down the channels and the space is diagonal. That's what I've been taught as a young lad," he explains.
"We'll obviously have a game-plan when we play them, and hopefully it will work - but you fully expect teams like that with the top quality players all over the pitch to be up there, yeah. If you lose the ball on the halfway line, if you play against Chelsea, you've got [Diego] Costa, [Eden] Hazard, Willian. It's like, give it away, one pass, goal. They're phenomenal players, and I think you've got to be constantly switched on in games."
As for Liverpool, that's a slightly different matter, in terms of what it means to him personally. With the two teams not playing until the 27th, Walters will actually spend today on the Wirral, where he lives, and where he grew up - in a family full of Everton fans.
"Yeah, I grew up as an Everton fan, my brothers, Dad - all Everton. Where I live it's mixed anyway. Everyone wants to know who you support, whether it be a delivery man, taxi driver or whatever - you get a bit of stick."
You also know Walters is well able to handle it - even if it's delivered with the same smile.
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