Jon Walters was one of the most likable Irish internationals we've had
'So you're saying there's a chance '
It was one of the most iconic Irish sporting tweets of 2017. Ireland had just defeated Wales in Cardiff thanks to a second-half goal from James McClean and for a brief moment the door had been open for Martin O'Neill and Roy Keane to follow up their heroics at Euro 2016 and take the Boys in Green to the 2018 FIFA World Cup finals in Russia.
Denmark and Christian Eriksen ensured that that door slammed shut, after they locked it, reinforced it and tossed the key over the Irish Sea and as far away as Nottingham after they slaughtered Ireland 5-1 at Lansdowne Road in one of the most scarring defeats in the history of Irish football, which, unfortunately denied Walters and many others the chance to play at a World Cup.
For years Walters had slaved away as this battering ram for Ireland. This winger-cum-striker-cum-winger again that was never blessed with the pace of a Shane Long, never had the trickery of an Aiden McGeady, yet somehow was more productive and effective than both players during his international career.
What Walters had was heart, honesty and this drive that really embodied what Ireland were under Martin O'Neill. This team that were devoid of any real tactical guidance, any real quality in comparison to previous Irish teams, yet fought relentlessly for every play-off berth, every group seeding and every knockout phase that they achieved under the Derry man and Walters was often either the emotional driver behind those sides, the physical driver, or the player that fired in important goals when Ireland needed them most.
There was his header against Estonia in the 2011 Euro play-offs. His close range shots against Georgia and Scotland. His penalties against Poland and Bosnia, with no 26 step run up either, he ran at the ball full steam and tried to break the back of the net with every strike. There was no messing.
He scored important goals for a team who received the vast majority of their chances came from the end of Robbie Brady's left-foot. Somehow, some way, in a team that often drew up their route to goal with a hammer as opposed to a pencil, he would find ways to get to the ball first, and more importantly, how to place it in the back of the net.
But that's Jon Walters the football player. Jon Walters the person was also beloved for a variety of reasons.
Jon Walters a perfect role model for players in their early 20s who might have suffered a few disappointments. Bounced back to play at the top level with club and country. Admirable career.
— Daniel McDonnell (@McDonnellDan) March 22, 2019
Firstly, his perseverance to suffer several rejections and keep on working until he eventually found his rhythm at Ipswich Town and then later with Stoke City, the only two clubs in which he made over 100 appearances for despite playing professionally for over 18 years.
Secondly, his honesty. Walters spoke with searing honesty about the death of his mother Helen in an interview with the BBC in 2017 and in the wake of Jack Grealish, Declan Rice and Michael Keane's admittance that he used Ireland as a stepping stone to England, it's refreshing to hear a player talk so openly about grief, but also a man that wanted to play for Ireland as more than just a means to an end.
"When my mother died, I promised I'd play for Ireland for her," he said.
"It's very emotional when I hear the Irish national anthem. It was a very tough time. We didn't know (how ill she was) until a couple of weeks before she died. We got pulled in, and told this was going to happen with mum. I remember crying for two days, non-stop.
"I went to see my mum in the hospice after she passed away, and the next day, I went straight back to school, carried on as if everything was alright."
It wasn't alright for Walters, not for a long time but in some respects it may have helped morph him into the leader he became on those Irish teams.
It has become clear now that things weren't always exactly rosie under Martin O'Neill and Roy Keane's leadership and the height of the instability was arguably at its peak when the latter went off at Harry Arter and Walters for missing a training session ahead of a friendly with the USA last summer.
Bare in mind, former Ireland forward Clinton Morrison recently said that he felt like sticking his head under the table when Keane went after manager Mick McCarthy in Saipan for fear the former Manchester United skipper was going to come for him next, but Walters does not appear to be one for hiding, at least not according to recently retired Ireland international Stephen Ward.
"Roy was getting on the boys for not training like three days in a row. Johnny’s got a bad knee so he can’t train all the time.
“They were at the training ground and him and Harry were just sitting on the bench, just relaxing and icing themselves and stuff. Roy walked over and was like, ‘Why aren’t you lads training?’ and he obviously blatantly knew why they weren’t training because the manager would have told him.
"And they were like, ‘We can’t do three days in a row’. ‘What are you lot? Professional footballers? That’s a f***ing shambles that is’. They both didn’t say anything and Roy walked off and came back over again, ‘So when are you going to train, I’m sick of people pulling out with injuries, what the f*** is wrong with ya?’ and the lads were like, ‘Listen, we’ve got problems, we do it at our clubs, we can’t do it’. Roy said something under his breath about Johnny and walked off.
“Johnny lost his head, jumped off the bench and walked after him, grabbed his arm and said, “What’s the story Roy? If you’ve got a problem say it to my face, don’t f***ing walk off’ and he was like, ‘I do have a problem, you’re not training, you’re getting soft, it’s no wonder Dyche doesn’t play ya, you’re f***ing always looking for an argument like you are now’ and he was like, ‘No Roy, you are the one trying to cause an argument’, and apparently they were squaring off to each other and having it off and had to be pulled off each other. All the lads were grabbing Johnny away from him… Johnny was going to kill him.
“Roy brought up something about when they were at Ipswich, they had like a falling out as well. He said, ‘You’re threatening me again Jon, like you did at Ipswich’, and Johnny was like, ‘Yeah what, are you going to be a s***house again and send me my fine in the post rather than saying it to my face?’
Keane is one of the spikier characters in Irish sport, the type that tells Kieran Richardson to go home for being too brash or refuses to sign Robbie Savage over his voicemail message, and here's Walters going toe-to-toe with him over his professionalism.
It's the hill that he chose to die on and it's one of the many reasons we respect him. He was fearless on the pitch, and seemingly on the training ground too, and he was adored by Irish fans. When Ireland needed a goal, he was often there.
When they needed someone to hold off German defenders and cling on to a vital home win, he was there. When they needed someone to bomb down the wing or lead the line, he was there.
He was reliable, likable and loved.
'Ohhh Jonathan Walters! Ohhh Jonathan Walters!'
How you'll be missed.