Walters' hard march to earn Stoke stripes helped by Cup's lucky break

Five years ago the much-travelled striker was given a free by Wrexham, writes Phil Shaw

On Walters has progressed from playing out FA Cup final fantasies in the park to contesting the trophy in Stoke City's stripes at Wembley today. But the player billed an overnight sensation spent years battling his way out of the lower divisions, where insecurity stalked him like a dogged man-marker.

Walters' world is light years removed from the one inhabited by Manchester City's exotic and expensive squad. As a boy he took the role of his Everton favourite Duncan Ferguson in jumpers-for-goalposts games. But the 27-year-old's early life as a professional included false starts at two Premier League clubs, a move down the league and a series of loans which led him and a young family from his native Birkenhead.

When his first child's illness brought them home, he played for two clubs who soon slid into non-League football. Even after his career was kick-started by a lucky break – in the Cup, coincidentally – he ended up in what might be termed a sickening row with Roy Keane.

His life-changing "bit of fortune" came five years ago. After a free transfer from Wrexham to Chester, Walters was thinking not so much of Wembley but of how "a bad injury or poor form" could actually force him out of the full-time game.

The chance of a Cup run disappeared when Bury beat his new club in a second-round game. Then it transpired they had fielded an ineligible player, Stephen Turbull, who is now with Blyth Spartans. Chester, reinstated and inheriting a tie against Ipswich, lost a replay after a 0-0 draw, but victorious manager Jim Magilton was sufficiently impressed to buy Walters.

Bury's blunder was the turning point that eventually led to a third tilt at the top flight for Walters. In his first two, he admits he succumbed to the myriad distractions for a teenaged player. "At Blackburn I was in the team that lost to Arsenal in the FA Youth Cup final – Jermaine Pennant played for them – and I don't think any of the others are still in the League," he says. "Sometimes as a young lad you can get ahead of yourself. I look after myself better now. When you have children, and we've got three, you need to eat right. Having a family was a big factor for me. I started spending more time with them than with my friends."

A £50,000 switch to Bolton brought four substitute outings in the Premier League, but Walters' desire to play regularly prompted him to move to Hull. "Scarlett [now six and sister to Sienna, two, and new-born son Eli] was very young and ill in hospital. So I asked the manager, Peter Taylor, and chairman, Adam Pearson, if I could move closer to the North-west.

"That's how I ended up at Wrexham. Then I had six months at Chester under Mark Wright, with [Wigan manager] Roberto Martinez in midfield. I owe them a lot. I've followed their ups and downs, and was pleased to see the re-formed club just won promotion."

Magilton nurtured his potential and Walters was captain when Keane arrived. "We were disappointed when Jim left. He wasn't just a good manager but a good man. But we were excited when Roy Keane was named. We thought maybe he'd do for us what he did at Sunderland. But it didn't work out."

The circumstances of Walters' departure last August were bizarre. On the eve of Ipswich's Carling Cup match with Exeter, amid reports of interest from top-flight clubs, the Republic of Ireland international informed Keane he was suffering from a vomiting bug. "I was ill the night before, but I thought he may think I wasn't telling the truth because I didn't want to get cup-tied.

"I sent the club physio a photo [of the vomit]. He came round at eight in the morning with the doctor. I said, 'I'm not fibbing. You can smell my breath'. He said he could smell that I'd been sick. There's nothing you can do when your kids get a bug."

Keane stripped him of the armband but granted Walters his wish of another stab at the big time in a £2.75m deal. Tony Pulis, the Stoke manager, has used him in both wide-midfield roles, up front and in the "hole". The 6ft Walters had to adjust to playing with and against "taller, more physical, more athletic players", although a total of 12 goals, making him joint leading scorer, shows how well he has settled.

His first in the Premier League came against Blackburn, managed by Sam Allardyce, who sold him for £50,000 at Bolton. "It wasn't a case of me proving him wrong. Leaving was my decision, though he was prepared to let me go. Afterwards, he was doing the press when I walked past. He tapped me on the shoulder and said 'Well done' with a big smile."

Walters' free role between midfield and Kenwyne Jones, along with the form of Pennant and Matt Etherington on the wings, has given Stoke an extra dimension. The long-ball label, as Bolton learned in their 5-0 semi-final humbling at Wembley, is too simplistic. Walters, who scored twice, has proved as much with a solo goal against Chelsea plus a spate of stunning near-post headers.

"At Blackburn we had a coach called Rob Kelly [until recently assistant manager at Sheffield Wednesday] who worked on things like that with me. A lot of what I learned when I was 16 to 18 is starting to come into my game now."

Stoke's form since the semi-final, two thumping wins and two away draws, suggests to Walters a side peaking at the right moment. "Sometimes finalists take their eye off the League but the manager isn't the kind who'd tolerate that. As players we sort of manage ourselves. In our dressing room nobody would let anyone take it easy."

Might the underdogs have greater mental strength and team spirit? "To be playing for Man City you need mental toughness as well. They're top internationals, the best they could buy. But they've got to produce this year. There's huge expectations and pressure on them, manager and the team."

Walters, whose last medal came at the age of 15 for Shaftesbury Boys on the Wirral, has already exceeded all of his expectations.

And an FA Cup final is an undoubted pleasure after the pressure of a poorly child. "Scarlett has a Stoke flag she waves every day, and she's been singing the fans' songs," he says, laughing as Stoke's bawdier battle hymns spring to mind. "The good ones, not the bad ones."

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