'I want O'Neill to know I haven't gone away'
Hunt puts Euros behind him as he sets sights on green return
STEPHEN HUNT has refused to criticise Giovanni Trapattoni for packing him off into the international wilderness, but admits his experience of Euro 2012 left him both physically and mentally pained.
After staying silent about the depth of his anguish since Poland, Hunt has opened up about the psychological impact the competition had on his career -- one he travelled to with such hopes, but left in tears.
He wasn't alone. For so many players, Euro 2012 acted as a decisive turning point.
Hunt, Kevin Foley and Shay Given have not played for Ireland since; Richard Dunne and Keith Fahey went through a year of injury hell; Darron Gibson went into self-imposed exile and Stephen Ward became Trap's scapegoat for the three harrowing defeats.
On the outside it seemed clear that players who had left Ireland as heroes returned as broken men. Hunt argues differently, though. "Broken men? No. But broken-hearted, yes. Definitely," he says. "As players, we all felt we could get out of the group.
"Had the tournament taken place a year or so earlier, then we would have done much better. We were in form then. But by Poland, so many of us were carrying injuries. It cost us.
"And when we got home, it was an emotional let-down, a difficult time. We're proud men. So what happened was hard."
What happened to Hunt was harder still, because, for four years previously, he had featured prominently under Trapattoni -- and prior to Ireland's final match of the tournament, against Italy, both the manager and his sidekick Marco Tardelli told him he would be sprung from the bench in the second half. Instead he was left to brood and watch as Ireland lost for a third successive time.
"The fact both Giovanni and Marco had told me the day before that I would play some part in the game got me motivated," he says. "So, when I didn't get on, it was too much for me to take.
"I felt I could have made an impact. Whenever I'd played Italy before, I did well. In Bari, when we drew 1-1, I got man of the match.
"But Trap might have seen I was not 100pc. He's a clever old fox. I can understand his decision. It disappoints me, bitterly, yes. But I still have complete respect for the man.
"If there was one thing I felt he should have done in Poland, it was to bring Seamus Coleman. One or two others were not in form. Seamus was. Otherwise, I have to be thankful for what he did for me."
What he is less appreciative of, however, is the damage the Euros did to his career.
Carrying a hip injury -- which for six months was misdiagnosed as a groin problem -- he delayed having an operation because he wanted to play his part in Poland, and in Irish football history.
But he was never right -- before, during or after the tournament. Eventually, a hip specialist, Darren Griffin, identified his problem and sorted it. By then, though, his contract was running out at Wolves and a new one would not arrive.
"In some respects, the Euros cost me a year and a half of my career -- because I was so desperate to play in the tournament, I put off having the surgery I needed," he says.
"Everything in my life was geared towards the Euros. Playing in a major tournament for Ireland meant the world to me and it is fair to say that was the same for the rest of the squad. Richard, Shay and I played through injury to get there.
"You look at the year after the competition -- the three of us wanted to get out playing again to prove we were still top-class players, but the frustrating thing was that we couldn't because something was nagging at us, injury- wise.
"Richard and I were constantly in touch, sharing notes. He copped on to my frustration straightaway and was a great source of support. Last year was desperately hard."
Yet by March Hunt was back playing, although, initially, not particularly well. After his second game back, the Wolves fans barracked him. He had a pop back.
"I'm at my best when I am backed into a corner. Me being me, I had to stand up for myself when the fans went for me," he says.
"So, the next time I played, I knew I had to produce the goods, prove myself to them. I was on the front foot and that is when I play well, when I have no option but to fight. And I did, winning three or four man of the matches in a row.
"It is the same now at Ipswich. I am on a short-term contract and doing well. When the going gets tough, I show people what I can do.
"So, there's no reason why, come March, I cannot repeat that in an Irish shirt, because any player who is doing it in the Championship deserves to be knocking on the door of our international team.
"Put it this way, I want Martin O'Neill to know I haven't gone away."
Does O'Neill's arrival excite him?
"You only judge a manager once you work with him. It is only when you are in there, when you see how they operate, that you figure them out," Hunt says.
"I respect him for what he has done in the game, of course I do, but it is hard to say anyone is a great manager until you play for him."
By March he hopes to do so, nearly two years after the international hangover began.