The television interviewer thrust the microphone forward. “Jonathan Walters how does it feel, you’ve just qualified for the European Championships!” On the pitch of Dublin’s Aviva Stadium, the big Stoke City forward lost his composure and couldn’t speak. The Irish crowd and his fellow players erupted in deafening roars. Walters’ two goals in the play-off against Bosnia sealed the Boys in Green’s passage to France this summer and the emotion of the occasion became too much for the big man.
Earlier in the qualifying series, Irish manager Martin O’Neill made a telling slip in a press conference: “Jon Walters is the essence of our club’” before qualifying his remark: “We have a club mentality.” For many Republic of Ireland fans, particularly those who travel to away games, the national team is very much their club side and in qualifying for Euro 2016, no one was their hero more than Walters.
Shane Long’s sensational winner to down the world champions Germany secured his place in Irish sporting history forever but it is Walters’ battling style which has become the symbol of the team.
“She was smiling down on me tonight I’m sure,” said the 32-year old after the victory over Bosnia, referring to his mother Helen.
Walters qualifies to play for Ireland through his Dublin-born mam who passed away when he was just 11-years-old. His football road to the top has been a long one, taking in the lower leagues in England before eventually making it to the promised land of the Premier League.
He grew up in the Wirral on Merseyside, a working class area and home to a big Irish emigrant community. As a teenager he was spotted by Blackburn Rovers and started his career at Ewood Park. A transfer to Bolton Wanderers saw Walters make his Premier League debut but a series of loan moves was followed by yo-yoing through the divisions at clubs such as Scunthorpe, Wrexham, and Chester.
In 2007, the forward moved to Ipswich Town and scored 30 goals in 136 appearances for the Tractor Boys. The end of his time at the club saw Walters feel the wrath of then manager at Ipswich Roy Keane when he requested a move away from Portman Road, an incident that saw a physical altercation between the two.
Stoke City had offered Walters a route back to the Premier League and he’s since gone on to make over 200 appearances for the Potters.
When Roy Keane came into the Irish management set-up as Martin O’Neill’s assistant, the bad blood between the two was put to bed immediately with a short chat and a handshake. If Keane was Ireland’s driving force during his playing days, Walters epitomises that same fighting spirit today.
It was Italian Giovanni Trapatonni who handed him his senior Irish debut in a friendly against Norway. He’s since scored ten goals in almost 40 appearances in the green jersey including in the play-off win over Estonia in 2011.
Walters’ involvement was minimal four years ago during the Republic’s disastrous appearance at Euro 2012. He and his teammates are determined to make up for that poor showing this summer. One of the many flags the fans of the famous Green Army will fly in France depicts the player as the historic Irish revolutionary hero Michael Collins. Walters even posted the picture on his own social media, quoting his compatriot, the MMA combatant Conor McGregor: “We’re not going to take part; we’re going to take over.”
And the Irish supporters – one of whom had Walters name tattooed on his backside following qualification success – are ready to follow their leader in huge numbers come June.
For Walters himself, each game at the finals will be personal.
“I’m incredibly proud every time I play for Ireland and I always think of my family when I line up for the national anthem. Once I hear the music starting, I always think of my mum and how proud she would be.”