Jonathan Walters: a man who showed his true worth in 2015
AS WE enter a new year, it's not uncommon to lack a bit of motivation or inspiration.
We could do worse than hold up Jonathan Walters as our driving force to kick-start 2016. When Walters retires from professional football, he should explore becoming some kind of motivational speaker. It would be fertile ground for the 32-year-old Republic of Ireland international.
Walters was the man in 2015 - and he can still be the man in 2016. His performances for the Republic in helping them reach this summer's European Championships in France were nothing short of magnificent.
I've been covering Republic of Ireland games for this newspaper since 2001. In most professions, just as in life, every day is a school day. I never rated Walters that highly. When the team-sheets would be passed around the press box, his name would be invariably included in the starting line-up and I'd roll my eyes every time.
I just didn't get Jonathan Walters. To me, he was a cumbersome centre forward. His touch was no more than average and he wasn't the quickest off the mark. To be a successful international striker, Walters simply didn't tick enough boxes. And yet, for all his limitations, he always started Republic games.
We might have the best view in the ground - but sometimes the views from the press box and the dug-out have very little in common. The problem I had with Walters was that I was looking at him from the wrong angle. I was guilty of focusing on what he wasn't good at rather than what he was good at.
Of course, this negative viewpoint isn’t the preserve of journalists. Sometimes as parents, we can concentrate too readily on what our kids aren’t good at and fail to recognise and celebrate areas where our kids flourish. At some time or another, every football coach is guilty of rushing to judgement about a player and his/her limitations.
I had an interesting conversation with Kieran McGeeney recently about players he played with during his career and how some were rated higher than others. Diarmaid Marsden’s name came up in conversation. McGeeney said Marsden was the “pick of the lot of them”.
“When you look at a footballer, unfortunately in the GAA, we sometimes don’t know what a good footballer is in a certain position,” he explained.
“People say corner-forwards are the most skilful - but I’d sometimes think the opposite: that they are the least skilful. They have one set of skills, but they’re measured higher than any other set of skills and I understand that because the game is about scoring.
“But when you look at the wide range of skills involved in Gaelic football - catching, blocking, tackling, passing, vision, spatial awareness, aggression and courage - Marsden had all of that. Marsden could have played from number two to number 15 for Armagh and wouldn’t have been out of place.”
Likewise, Jonathan Walters. Although the theory will never be tested, you get the distinct feeling Walters could play centre back, right back, left back, central midfield and never look “out of place”.
As we enter 2016, I’ve a deeper appreciation of what Jonathan Walters is good at. He possesses an insatiable work ethic. His temperament is one of his strongest attributes and he’s a taker of scoring chances, as he displayed against Scotland (h), Georgia (h), Poland (a) and Bosnia-Herzegovina (h). And sometimes you have to consider how awkward he makes opposition defenders feel when he’s chasing them down.
In his acclaimed book Only a Game, first published in 1976, Éamonn Dunphy writes glowingly about the “good pro” in the game.
“The good pro accepts responsibility - both his and, when the going gets tough, yours. Most of his virtues are invisible from the stands and the terraces,” Dunphy wrote.
“In January mud or April wind or August sunshine, every game is a test and there are so many ways to cheat, to walk away from your responsibility to the team. The good pro never does. He is sometimes knackered, often in despair, but never out of the ball game. He is my man. He is the footballer’s footballer, the sportsman’s sportsman.”
Walters served an apprenticeship in the lower leagues: Scunthorpe, Barnsley, Chester City and Wrexham among them. It's not the road he would have chosen in reaching the top of his trade, but there are invaluable life lessons in those various stops.
He's experienced hard times in his personal life, too, losing his mother when he was just 11. One of his daughters spent the first few months of her life in hospital due to a stomach problem.
"I had to look after my family and had a mortgage to pay and those things depend on my career. That's where a lot of my hunger still comes from," Walters said in a recent interview.
For two seasons, he suffered from a chronic knee tendon problem and couldn’t walk downstairs, but he never stopped playing during that time because he was “trying to get a contract”.
Currently, his place in the Stoke team is coming under threat after an impressive recruitment drive by manager Mark Hughes. But Walters is used to fighting against rising tides. That's what he's done for most of his playing career. And that's what's made him the player he is today.
In 2016, the bustling striker is our celebrated parable for what can be achieved with hard work and determination. In the cold, wintry months that lie ahead, Jonathan Walters can be the guiding light and inspiration to sportspeople from all walks of life.