Forever Grateful: Jonathan Walters
After 271 appearances, 62 goals, 27 assists, one red card, two own goals (both in the same game), an FA Cup final, a European tour, a few broken records, two managers, 20,000 minutes, so many fond memories and almost seven years: Jon Walters has called an end to his Stoke City career. Whether you thought he was a striker or a winger, you thought he had it all or was lacking that ‘something’, you wanted to see him add to his 102 consecutive Premier League starts or just wanted to give the poor man a break; no one can deny that Jon has been an integral part in Stoke’s most successful spell ever. Now named by many Potters as a club legend, Walters had that something which fans resonated with, whether it be micro-scale looking at the football pitch or macro-scale looking at Stoke’s journey: he was there. He was always there.
Walters was signed in the Summer of 2010 by then Stoke manager Tony Pulis from Ipswich Town for £2.75m – which would rise to just over £3m. Jon’s time at the Town ended sourly, after his desire to leave saw him dropped from the team, stripped of the captaincy and told by then manager Roy Keane that he wouldn’t play again for the club. Stoke fended off interest from QPR to bring Walters into the Premier League, with Pulis “looking to bring in more goals, Jon certainly fits the bill”. He was signed alongside club-record signing Kenwyne Jones, Jermaine Pennant, Marc Wilson, Eidur Gudjohnsen, Carlo Nash and Florent Cuvelier.
Walters made his competitive Stoke debut in a 2-1 loss against Spurs; Jon should have also scored his first goal for the club in that game. His header went into the goal, however referee Chris Foy wrongly judged the ball to be cleared off the line by future teammate Peter Crouch. Jon was regularly paired up with Kenwyne Jones with both benefiting from each other’s physicality, Jermaine Pennant and Matthew Etherington’s spellbinding wing-play and, of course, Rory Delap’s long throw-ins. The 2010/11 season saw Jon score the most goals in all competitions with twelve. Five of those goals were scored in Stoke’s best ever FA Cup run, including two in a magnificent 5-0 win in the semi-final against Bolton Wanderers. With Jon playing a huge part in Stoke’s cup run plus also ensuring Premier League survival for another season, he was an integral part to one of Stoke’s most memorable seasons in history.
Pulis was delighted with Walters’ emergence in the Premier League, he was quoted: “Jon’s come from the Championship and sometimes it takes time to have the confidence and the belief to make the step up. He had an up-and-down start but he’s been fantastic for us. He’s certainly my type of player, he gives everything, he never stops and whatever you’ve paid him, you know he’s earned it.” Stoke fans bought into Walters in the same way: he embodied the Stoke ethos of tirelessness over trickery and proved to the rest of English football that a big heart goes a long way. Having achieved so much so quickly, many were left excited to see what else Jon could bring to the West Midlands.
The following season, Stoke were entered into the Europa League as a result of their cup triumph and Walters had new striking competition at the club in the form of a new record signing, Peter Crouch. Despite the fight for a place in the team, Jon played well over three thousand Premier League minutes that season, almost one thousand extra than the previous season. Although often featuring on the right wing, Jon would always be ready to give his all and, despite his lack of typical winger-like qualities, he often found a way to make the difference. He also heavily featured in the Europa League and contributed to a valiant effort from Stoke, reaching the Round of 32 and playing against European giants Valencia. Walters made his 100th Stoke appearance with the club’s final game of the season; he bagged a brace against Bolton Wanderers in a 2-2 draw which relegated the opponents.
In his third season, Walters enjoyed his joint best Premier League season for goalscoring with eight strikes. More prominently though, Walters had started every Premier League game that season, as he did for every Stoke game since February 2011. Jon embodied what made Tony Pulis’ Stoke City so successful: motivation, selflessness and togetherness. It was why Jon started every Premier League game that he was able to under Tony Pulis, until the manager’s departure at the end of the 2012/12 season. Pulis’ unwavering love for Jon was made clear, even besides his regular inclusion. Pulis once said of him: “He gives everything, Jon. He is just a very gifted individual in lots of respects, and his biggest asset is his big strong heart and the British bulldog spirit he has got.”
Mark Hughes arrived at Stoke, but Walters continued to be ever-present in the Stoke side. In fact, he started his 100th consecutive Premier League game against in a 3-3 draw against Swansea. Sadly, three games later, Jon was unfit to face Cardiff and halted his run of 102 consecutive Premier League starts; a League record which still stands today. Walters’ involvement in the first team has decayed ever since, with manager Mark Hughes bringing in new recruits season after season in a bid to change Stoke’s style of football. His lack of involvement never hindered his impact whenever he did play; on the contrary, Walters scored more Premier League goals per minute in his final three seasons at Stoke than any other time at the club. He would be the man to provide the steel that some a Mark Hughes team sometimes lacked, he was Mr. Reliable, he was always ready.
Although progressively phasing Walters out of the team, Hughes acknowledged what Jon brought to the team, he once said “speak to anyone in the game, and they will say you have to be mad not to see the qualities he brings to the team. “The first prerequisite any coach or manager looks for in a player is that he is prepared to give every last cent in a game. Jon does that and more. He works every day in training like it’s his last day and plays every game like it’s his last game. I just wish every player had that mentality.” Hughes knew why Jon had been so successful under Tony Pulis and, until now, never saw fit to replace him. He had what every team requires: someone to just do as they’re told and produce what they know they’re capable of at the most vital of moments.
Walters’ future in Stoke has been through phases of doubt throughout his time at the club. Despite once saying that he wanted to remain at the club forever, rarely a season went by without Walters being linked with a move away; particularly, Jon reacted to Norwich City’s heavy interest in the Summer of 2015 with a transfer request. However, both Stoke and Walters knew what each brought to each other and commitment from both was shown time and time again. It was only this Summer, where it became clear that a squad overhaul was needed to readdress the balance in an ageing squad, both parties knew that Stoke and Walters were destined for separate futures.
Very few modern-day footballers would be able to replace what Walters brought to Stoke. He delivered so much more than guile and tenacity, he sometimes oozed with class and had a hand in some unforgettable moments. If you could epitomise the love for Jon Walters at Stoke City, it would be the reception he received once his transfer to Burnley has been finalised. A bombardment of well-wishes, praise and despondency from club staff, players and fans alike has yet to cease. It’s a display of affection that rarely occurs in the world of football and in these times of disloyalty. But then, not many contribute so much to a club’s rise as Jon Walters has to Stoke: not only was he just there, he very often made it happen.
Twenty-thousand minutes of Jon Walters, and we’ll all be forever grateful.
Written by Ben Rowley
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