Jonathan Walters back in form and ready to make up lost time
Stoke man is determined to make up for missing out on Ireland’s Euros campaign
“It’s really enjoyable to come and meet up. I speak to players from other countries and they don’t enjoy it as much, which is baffling really.” Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho
The way 2017 has started for Jonathan Walters, he’s trusting that things can only get better. Until a fortnight ago he’d played just a single game for Stoke City after the turn of the new year, surgery on a knee problem putting him out of action for close to two months and putting into jeopardy his participation in Friday’s critical World Cup qualifier against Wales.
But he’s back. “And I’m fresh and ready to go,” he said after training at Abbotstown on Monday morning, the 33-year-old having played in Stoke’s last two Premier League games. And he wasn’t exactly eased back gently either, Manchester City and Chelsea providing the opposition.
“Lots of running around, lots of defensive work, two tough ones but, most importantly, I got through them,” he says.
Euro 2016 was, of course, no less frustrating for a player who had made a major contribution to the team getting there, his 2015 international player of the year award a recognition of that. He appeared in the draw with Sweden and in the last-16 defeat by France, but injury led to him missing the games against Belgium and Italy in between.
Ups and downs
“But that’s part and parcel of being a player. You have ups and downs. I wasn’t where I wanted to be, but that’s life. I was kitted up sitting on the bench, but couldn’t play in those games. The Italy game and Robbie [Brady] scoring, it’s moments like that you want to be involved in. That’s what you’re a player for.
“The lads did really well, but that’s all behind us now. And the same lads who made such an impact last summer are at the forefront of this qualifying campaign as well.
“We have some younger players who we always believed were very good players and who could play at the highest level, but maybe it takes games like the ones we played last summer, against the very big players and teams, and for them to perform as they did, for them to realise those players aren’t so far ahead of themselves. That breeds confidence and it’s carried on through to the start of this campaign.
“Robbie, Jeff [Kendrick], James McClean, Shane Duffy, James McCarthy, Seamus [Coleman], they will be the core for years to come. Competing and excelling in those big games breeds confidence and you grow as a player – and they certainly have.”
It’s six-and-a-half years since Walters made his senior debut for Ireland and he says his involvement with the squad gives him no less pleasure now that it did then. “Everyone knows we get on so well as a group of players, it’s almost like a club mentality, it’s really enjoyable to come and meet up. I speak to players from other countries and they don’t enjoy it as much, which is baffling really.
“It’s hard to come away from your family for so long in the course of the year, but it makes it that much easier that we have such a strong bond between us. There are no airs or graces about anyone in the squad, everyone is really down to earth. It’s just the mentality of the country as a whole really. It’s like when the fans travel, there’s no trouble, everyone just gets along. It’s the same with the players.”
And as a group, he says, they have grown in confidence, further bolstered by a qualifying campaign that, after four games, sees them top of the table, a draw in Serbia and victory in Austria the stand-out results so far.
“But with the players we have it doesn’t surprise me that we’ve had those results. But let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves, there are still some very good teams in it and it’s a huge game on Friday. So far, so good, we’ll be at the halfway point after the Wales game and we’ll see where we sit.
“If we can a result on Friday it creates a big gap between ourselves and Wales. It might be too far for them, who knows. We’re riding the crest of a wave in the campaign so far, but I’m sure there’ll be ups and downs. We’re not a Spain or a Brazil, or someone like that, winning every game easily, cantering through the group. If you think you’re sitting pretty, that’s when you get tripped up.”