Club Focus – Stoke City – From the wrath of Keane to Irish Green: a strange six months for Jon Walters

Tuesday night was a proud evening for Jon Walters, as the Stoke City forward made his first start for the Republic of Ireland in their 3-0 Carling Nations Cup triumph over Wales. Walters, of Birkenhead but qualified to play for the Republic of Ireland by dint of his Dublin-born mother, showed encouraging signs on his full debut, making some well-timed runs, looking tidy on the ball, and creating the second goal for Damien Duff with some typically persistent and unselfish play.

It has been a strange six months for the ex-Chester City man. One Irishman unlikely to be sharing in Walters’ delight at representing the emerald isle is Roy Keane. As manager of Ipswich Town, Keane had sung the praises of Walters, his star player, making him captain. Yet the relationship between player and manager soured when northern clubs began to show an interest in Walters. When his captain expressed a wish to leave the Tractor Boys to move closer to his family on Merseyside, Keane reacted badly. Relations deteriorated to the point that Walters felt forced to send photos of his own vomit to the club physio to prove that he was not faking illness in missing a Carling Cup tie last August. The grisly evidence made no difference however – Keane stripped him of the captaincy and dropped him from the Ipswich squad.

Walters eventually got his wish, moving to the Potteries in a £2.75m deal shortly afterwards. Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, given that he made his name at Portman Road as a right winger, Walters has been mostly utilised as the withdrawn striker in Pulis’ 4-4-1-1. Robbed of a debut goal when referee Chris Foy failed to spot that his header against Tottenham Hotspur had crossed the line, he has since developed a knack of scoring important goals for the Potters in both the league and cup, with six in 20 starts this campaign. His industrious playing style and versatility have clearly made a good impression on Tony Pulis, who has declared him “a dream to work with”. While such effusive praise has not been universally echoed by Stoke fans thus far, only the most blinkered critic could not respect his tenacity and commitment on the pitch. His displays have been hit and miss as he adjusts to life in the top tier, but nevertheless, the quality of his first touch, movement and link play have been underrated by many.

His finest hour in a Stoke shirt arguably came in the weekend win over Sunderland, when the introduction of Walters from the bench in an attacking midfield role breathed fresh life into a previously moribund Potters’ performance. The Black Cats struggled to cope with his energy as he chased every loose ball, snapping at the heels of defenders, making dangerous runs into the area from deep, and cleverly linking the play in a way that his team had been unable to do before his entrance. He was the pivotal player as Stoke switched to an unfamiliar 3-2-3-2 formation that ultimately swung the game in their favour.

Showing himself to be a dependable squad player for the Staffordshire side, Walters, at 27, has come to international football relatively late. Yet he has in spades many of the qualities that Giovanni Trappattoni looks for – strength, diligence, and a good football brain. There could be many more caps heading his way in the future.

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