Former Burnley, Stoke and Republic of Ireland striker Jonathan Walters believes superstar-in-the-making Declan Rice is not only destined for the very top but should be attracting the attention of Pep Guardiola and others this transfer window.

“I’ve played with him and trained with him through the Ireland squad. I said very early on that he was a big talent.

"To play so consistently well in the Premier League at such a young age is unbelievable and I’ve spoken to some West Ham players over the past couple of years and they have said he’s the best player in the building.”

“In my opinion, he can go right to the top and without a shadow of a doubt he’s a target for the big teams, whether that be Manchester United or anyone else.

If I was Manchester City I would be looking at him because of the position that he plays where he can sit in front of that back four and do an unbelievable job. He’s available for the ball and right foot, left foot he deals with it.

"His passing is simple but he’s got a range. He covers a lot of ground and breaks up attacks. He can take players on. He is an ultimate player in that role and I’d be surprised if plenty of clubs aren’t in for him this summer.”

After a long and distinguished career Walters was forced to retire from top level football earlier this year following a persistent Achilles problem, though he remains involved with the Clarets who he has served well since 2017.

And it’s at Turf Moor where the 35 year old sees another potential big move taking place imminently, namely for his team-mate James Tarkowski.

“He always impresses me with how he trains and conducts himself and I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the bigger club are in for James this summer, especially with him being involved in the England set-up.

"I rate him very highly and think he is better than most of the other England centre-backs. He’s a big talent with his size, speed and composure.”

Loyalty to, and speaking highly of team-mates is a common theme throughout our conversation and it’s easy to see why Walters has been a popular figure at every club he has represented, from lower league Wrexham right up to a Stoke side that punched above its weight in the Premier League for several seasons.

The same respect is given to his international colleagues too and after seeing a disgusting example of hate-mail reposted online by James McClean, the forward responds with clear exasperation.

“It’s a very touchy issue but you can’t look at racism one way: if it is racism, it’s against every race and religion, not just picking individual ones.

"Whatever you think of James – and I know him personally and he’s got a heart of gold – it is not right to wave abuse at him for his beliefs or how he is portrayed. He has suffered for many years and he is not the only Irish player to do so.”

“I saw James’ card he received on Twitter and I texted him asking ‘who is helping you here, mate?’ He said no-one; from Stoke to the FA they say things but nothing is done about it.

"If it was a more high profile case as we have seen in the media recently more would be done about it and that is disappointing. He might be a white Irish guy but it’s still racism no matter how you look at it and he should have the full support and backing that others have had.”

“Whether it gets brushed under the carpet I don’t know but my opinion is that whether it’s James McClean, Raheem Sterling or Mo Salah; or whether it’s in the Premier League or League Two everyone is the same and should have the same support.”

It is an unflinching reaction you would expect from a player who was known for his committed displays, though there was a good deal of under-appreciated skill to go with it.

After giving his all to many different causes in many different divisions down the years, Walters’ thoughts on the recent criticism of Manchester United’s lack of fitness is worth listening to also. Paul Pogba and co should probably look away now though.

“I saw the average running stats for Manchester United over seven games and Juan Mata was up there with 11.5k then it went down and down to those with 7 or 8k. For me as a player that is unacceptable.

"If that was at Manchester City the players wouldn’t be getting in the team. Sometimes it’s a cheap dig to blame the fitness of players but you have to be able to compete.

"If we’re playing against a team and they’re not as fit, we’ll run all over them. If I was a manger that is a given – you have to out-work teams.”

Speaking of Manchester City, their titanic title fight with Liverpool is fascinating Walters just like the rest of the nation and with the likable Merseysider having played against both recently, talk soon turns to his personal tussles with their respective leaders.

In one corner towers the newly crowned Player of the Year Virgil van Dijk. In the other, City legend Vincent Kompany. So, who is better?

“You have got to go with Vincent Kompany over van Dijk for winning the Premier League as captain. To be up there with the best you have to be winning things.

"Virgil van Dijk has had a great 18 months and as good as he’s been you have to be doing it for at least four, five years before you can be considered right up there. Look at Ramos, Busquets, Pique.

"Those players are the world’s best because they’ve been doing it consistently winning trophies, leagues, Champions Leagues.

There is a good probability that Virgil van Dijk is going to be captain next year and he just needs to keep it up, keep doing it.

"Like Vincent Kompany who has been doing it for so many years. He’s older now and injuries have taken their toll but they’re right at the top of the league and he’s still played a major part this season.”

Relaying what it’s like to play against the veteran Belgian stopper meanwhile brings appreciation of the defender’s craft along with an acknowledgement of the dark arts that come with it.

“There are plenty of times when I’ll drop deep and look to pass the ball off and you know for a fact that he’s coming right through the back of you. And he’ll get away with it because he’s a nice and very articulate guy.

"He gets away with a lot but I like that because I try and do the same. He’s a gent and he’s been there. They are different players but by virtue of winning the league and being so consistent over the years it’s Kompany for me.”

 

Jonathan Walters: Quickfire Questions

Who Will Win The Premier League?

I think both teams will win their remaining two games so it will be City by a point.

Who Will Win The Champions League?

Barcelona

Who Will Win The Golden Boot?

Close your eyes and pick one. I’ll go for Salah because he’s leading at the moment.

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