Thursday 19 January 2017

Stephen Hunt: Watching the Premier League here can feel like a local event

Published 13/09/2015 | 14:30

'I’m writing this in Sutton Coldfield and you wouldn’t have known United were playing Liverpool yesterday, whereas back home, it feels as important as any local sporting event'
'I’m writing this in Sutton Coldfield and you wouldn’t have known United were playing Liverpool yesterday, whereas back home, it feels as important as any local sporting event'

One of the strange consequences of spending plenty of time in Ireland this summer was that I sat down to watch Liverpool play at Manchester United last night and I felt like a fan again.

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A report last week said that 121,000 Irish people travelled to England in 2014 to watch Premier League football, more than came from any other country.

This summer I've been reminded of the attachment Irish people have to Premier League clubs, United and Liverpool in particular.

When I played a round of golf or sat in Tides, my gastropub in Rosslare, the talk often turned to these clubs as effortlessly as it would to Rory or Pádraig Harrington or the Wexford hurlers.

During my years in England, I'd forgotten this, but there was a time when it mattered a lot to me. Growing up, I was a Liverpool fan, you see, and when I got to play in the Premier League, I often went to Old Trafford thinking I was playing for Liverpool rather than Reading or Hull. It was a way of making the games seem bigger than they were. It was Liverpool v United, the biggest game in English football, not Reading v Manchester United, a slightly less important contest in English football.

It also took the fear out of those contests. I was playing for Liverpool, not Reading, so anything could happen. It was a strange mental trick I played on myself, but one that never bothered me.

I remember one time at Old Trafford when Wayne Rooney kicked me as I was going down the wing. We squared up to each other and, even though the aggression was controlled, there was a part of me that felt this was the continuation of a great rivalry.

There aren't many links between the game you worship as a kid and the realities you experience as a professional. But when I first played at Liverpool or United, I would always think of my friends, Ray and John, and the tension we'd feel on weekends like this.

We were all Liverpool fans and we'd go round to John's house. His family owned a shop, so we'd have fizzy drinks, ice cream and chocolate, which, looking back, probably didn't do much to calm us down. At times of high stress, we'd raid the shop for more stuff, although maybe it was when the sugar rush was wearing off.

It mattered to us then and I had forgotten how much it matters to Irish people. Some people have a problem with it, but I don't. It's a natural and instinctive thing.

Like me, they grow up supporting these clubs and it would be phoney to pretend they didn't.

I carried my love of Liverpool with me for a good deal of my career. It would only really come to the surface when I played at Anfield or Old Trafford, but then I would feel it.

As a professional, you're not supposed to think like this and many don't. But others carry on supporting their team and, almost as importantly, they want to do well against their rivals.

Over the years, my feelings changed. I stopped watching matches with the intensity of a fan and looked at them with a pro's cold eye. These days, I look at Championship matches from another perspective. As a player without a club, I try and see if anyone could do with a left-sided midfielder. These are my priorities now.

But the old feelings came rushing back in the last few weeks. I'm writing this in Sutton Coldfield and you wouldn't have known United were playing Liverpool yesterday, whereas back home, it feels as important as any local sporting event. It matters to the people, to Liverpool supporters and United supporters.

In some ways, it could have been a local event.

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