As much as he can’t hide his frustration at losing Ireland’s newly crowned player of 2016, Robbie Brady, to a needless suspension for the game against Wales, Martin O’Neill will be delighted that the player of 2015, Jon Walters, is available for selection on Friday after making a full recovery from a problematic knee injury.
Twice in the last 12 months, Walters has had to undergo surgery but now with two full games for Stoke — against Man City and Chelsea — under his belt, he is happy to declare himself “fresh and ready to go again” for his country.
“It was a tear in the meniscus — again,” he says of the recurring injury problem. “Looking back, I think I did it in the last game of last season. I’d had it operated on this time last year and then came back for the end of the season. I remember an incident in the last game, against West Ham, backing into someone, and I really caught it. At the time, I just thought it was a jarring of the knee, part and parcel of getting over an operation. But probably that was the incident that did it.”
A lesson learned, he says he took his time about coming back from the second operation, the player, the surgeons and the physios all agreeing on a six to eight weeks recovery period.
And, sure enough, with everything going according to play, he was back training in the seventh week.
Contrary to some reports, Walters says the timing of his most recent operation was not designed to facilitate a return for this Friday’s World Cup qualifier; rather it was simply the case that he had reached a point where he felt he had no option but to try and resolve the problem once and for all.
“At the start of the season, it was a mixture of not playing and playing,” he says.
“And the physios at Stoke will tell you that after games it was taking a couple of days for the swelling to go down, until it got to the point where, a week after the Liverpool game (on December 27), I was really struggling with it. Once it gets to that point, you’ve got to go down the surgery route.”
It tells you something about Walters’ commitment that he still managed to play all 360 minutes of Ireland’s World Cup qualifying campaign to date, in contrast to last summer when injury strictly limited his appearances at the Euros.
That was especially disappointing for a player whose goals and all-round performances had contributed so much to Ireland getting to France but, even when he was “sitting kitted up on the bench” at the finals, he says he was heartened to see how the team’s younger players, in particular, were growing in stature through the experience.
“The lads that made such an impact there are at the forefront of this qualifying campaign as well,” he observes. “I think that it may take games like the ones last summer against big teams for some of the players to realise that the players in those other teams are not so far ahead of them. Robbie Brady, Jeff Hendrick, James McClean and big Shane Duffy will be the core for years to come. Competing and excelling in those big game situations gives you confidence. That’s what can happen in tournament football — you grow as a player. And they have.”
They have also, he feels, been inspired by the special bond which unites the Irish players.
“I think everyone knows how well we get on together,” he says.
“It’s almost like a club mentality in the group. I speak to other players from other countries and, when they meet up, they don’t enjoy it as much. That’s baffling. It is hard to go away from your family for so long during the course of the year. But it is really enjoyable when we meet up and it makes it that much easier. To have such a strong bond between us when we go away is the key.
“There are no airs and graces in the squad and everyone is really down to earth. I think it’s the mentality of the country as a whole. Everyone says it. It’s like when the fans travel — there is no trouble anywhere, everyone gets on with each other. It’s the same with the players.”
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