Barnsley v Walsall: Gloves are back on as Jack Walton gets chance to stake his claim

AS a down-to-earth, straightforward Lancashire lad, nothing much seems to faze Jack Walton.

Back between the posts: Jack Walton.
Back between the posts: Jack Walton.

Barnsley’s second-choice goalkeeper might have been afforded tough baptisms at both ends of the spectrum last season, but he definitely carries the look of someone who possesses an old head on young shoulders – despite only turning 20 in April.

It was aided by a manning-up process last autumn which saw him farmed out on loan to Evo-Stik Northern Premier strugglers Stalybridge Celtic, where the frustrations, recriminations and swear words were rife after a ropey old start to 2017-18.

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For a rookie goalkeeper, it was a test of character above all else, something his coaches back at Oakwell would have known only too well.

That particular journey began in the former Leicestershire mining town of Coalville, where Walton picked the ball out of his net four times as the Celts were routed 4-0 and the visiting dressing room was not a place for the faint-hearted.

Thankfully, he successfully came out on the other side, only to then be pitted into another testing East Midlands arena as Barnsley battled for their Championship lives in the Spring.

The Reds may have lost that particular fight, but Walton, in many respects, stepped up to the plate after being handed a shock debut just one day after his 20th birthday in a defeat at Nottingham Forest’s City Ground on April 24.

It may have been a night when Walton was beaten three times as the Reds succumbed 3-0, but without his contribution, the margin of defeat would have been several more, with the young custodian being blameless for events by the Trent.

Even in defeat, that evening suggested Walton had something.

That mettle will again be tested this afternoon as he steps into the breach for Reds No 1 and captain Adam Davies, on international duty with Wales.

Those who know him the best will not expect him to be found wanting again and barking out the orders to his seniors will not be a problem either.

Relishing getting his hands dirty again at the coalface after being understudy to Davies in the league this term, Walton said: “I am a bit crackers anyway, so it does not bother me.

“You have to take responsibility for yourself on the pitch and for the team as you need three points at the end of the day and telling someone where they should be might stop a goal.

“In the whole squad, we have a lot of players who have played at this level and know what you need. Sometimes, it is not pretty, but you have got to be rough and tough and win the headers and everything.

“People know that and it is our mindset to go into the game to win our battles before we can start playing football.

“A men’s changing room is a bit different from an Under-23s’ changing room. In my first game last season for Stalybridge, we got beaten 4-0 and there were shoes and boots getting thrown about the room as it means something.

“You have got to man up quickly. It means a lot to the players and people’s jobs are on the line and you cannot be messing about.”

An eventful spell in Walton’s career culminated in him signing a new three-year contract in early July, but his determination not to rest upon laurels and take the next positive step of his career is clear.

After starting in the Reds’ final three games of last season after the demotion of Davies, Walton finds himself second choice again to the senior man, with head coach Daniel Stendel restoring Davies as the club’s No 1.

With Davies otherwise engaged today, Walton – who impressed in Tuesday night’s Checkatrade Trophy group win at Oldham – is intent on grasping his window of opportunity this afternoon in what will constitute just his second Oakwell senior appearance.

If it is as memorable as his first one – when he kept a clean sheet as Barnsley gave themselves a flicker of survival hope in an outstanding 2-0 win over Brentford in their final home outing of last season – then he and the Reds will not be complaining.

On his challenge to be the club’s first-choice goalkeeper, Bury-born Walton, on the books of his home-town club and Bolton Wanderers as a youngster, added: “I was delighted to make my debut last season and it was a really good end, personally.

“But after getting relegated, there was a new manager and I kind of started afresh when I came back in pre-season. Me and Davo came back and battled for the shirt. He has got the nod, but that is how football works.

“It is frustrating for me as I want to play football. But, on the other hand, he (Davies) produced four clean sheets on the bounce and I am buzzing for the team as we are unbeaten. Now it is my turn to sit patiently, challenge and get that shirt back.”

Walton will be the last line on defence for a Reds side who proudly boast an unbeaten league record this season and their concession of just three goals in six League One outings in 2018-19 is currently the joint-best in the division, alongside Blackpool.

But for Walton, it is mainly about keeping his own house in order, with a positive midweek performance at Oldham following on from a patchy showing, by his own admission, in his prior outing this season in the Reds’ EFL Cup exit at Bloomfield Road last month.

“You are only as good as your last game. I was disappointed with my performance at Blackpool, but I think I bounced back at Oldham and that is what you have got to do,” Walton observed.

“Confidence is high and we are unbeaten in the league and will go into the game trying to keep that unbeaten record and get three points.”