x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Stoke City's Jonathan Walters has arrived in the Premier League

From bottom of the pile to one of the best players in Premier League, the 'honest tryer' and journeyman is going places.

Jonathan Walters started in the Premier League but went down to League Two before a twist of fate has seen him at a career peak.
Jonathan Walters started in the Premier League but went down to League Two before a twist of fate has seen him at a career peak.

Viewed from a distance, many footballers' careers can resemble a hill on the skyline, with a peak in the middle and a gradual ascent and decline either side.

In this and much else, Jonathan Walters is the exception. His present peak is threatening to rise still higher, but bordered by the deepest of valleys.

Less than five years ago, a player who has assumed pivotal importance for club and country was mired in League Two, at a club who, like his previous employers, were on such a downward spiral that they were to tumble into non-league after his departure.

Yet in April, he was the outstanding player in an FA Cup semi-final, scoring twice at Wembley Stadium, and this Friday, he is likely to lead the line for the Republic of Ireland in a play-off to qualify for Euro 2012.

A man with the career path of a journeyman - including loan spells, he joined his 10th club at 26 - could travel to Poland and Ukraine next summer.

The path to success at Stoke City has certainly been circuitous.

The forward began in the Premier League, at first Blackburn Rovers, for whom he never played a first-team game, and then Bolton Wanderers, where he was restricted to substitute appearances. By his own admission, he failed to take his chance at the Reebok Stadium.

"At that age I didn't look after myself properly," he said. "I was a young lad going out too much. Having a family was a big factor for me. I started spending more time with them than with my friends."

Impatience prompted his exit, initially temporarily, but then on a permanent deal.

"I didn't realise what I had at Bolton until it had gone because after that I ended up going down the leagues," he said.

After being borrowed by Crewe Alexandra and Barnsley, he joined Hull City. After his first season at the KC Stadium, they went up, from League One.

Walters went down, to League Two with Wrexham.

It was a move prompted partly by domestic considerations. His young daughter, Scarlett, was ill and Walters wanted to be nearer to his native Merseyside. After a one-season stay, he left Wrexham, then in financial trouble, for local rivals Chester on a free transfer.

Then fate intervened.

An administrative error by Bury, who had knocked Chester out of the FA Cup, put Walters in the shop window in January 2007.

"It turned out Bury had played this lad on loan from Hartlepool, Stephen Turnbull, and he wasn't eligible," he explained.

They were ejected from the competition. Chester took their place against Ipswich Town. They took the Championship club to a replay and benefited to the tune of £100,000 (Dh589,493) when Walters impressed enough to be lured to Portman Road.

Jim Magilton was the manager who signed him, but his stay in Suffolk brought Walters, a former Republic of Ireland Under 21 international, under the guidance of his adopted country's iconic footballer.

Roy Keane initially liked what he saw, describing Walters as the second best player in the Championship and making him captain.

"Jon leads in his attitude to training, the way he speaks to people, his respect to staff, the way he plays, his work-rate and his never-say-die attitude," Keane said. "He's got a lot going for him. How he's not playing in the Premier League I will never know."

When he did return to the top flight, it was against Keane's wishes. Their relationship turned sour as Stoke's interest became public knowledge.

When Walters withdrew from a Carling Cup tie against Blackburn, he felt Ipswich no longer trusted him, going as far as to send the club physio a photo of his vomit to prove he actually was ill.

The saga had a happier ending. Stoke paid £2.75 million for his services, some of which went to Chester's receivers.

At the Britannia Stadium, he re-established a reputation as an honest tryer with genuine skill, scoring a stunning solo goal against Chelsea last season.

Normally as a support striker, but capable of playing on either flank, he has cemented his place, the boyhood Evertonian also scored a winner against Liverpool this season. Acclaim has eventually arrived.

"Walters has been one of the best players in the Premier League over the last 12 months," said Owen Coyle, the Bolton manager.

Giovanni Trapattoni, the Ireland manager, has also taken note. With Kevin Doyle suspended and both Robbie Keane and Shane Long struggling with injury for Friday's tie in Estonia, the 28 year old is set for a first competitive start. It will be a further reward for his remarkable renaissance.

"There are not many players who have played in every division but I'm glad to have done," Walters said. "It makes you appreciate all this more because I have been at the bottom of the pile, but I've worked my way back up."

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