Tuesday 28 February 2017

Stephen Hunt: Emptiness of knowing it's the end - tomorrow is a long way away

It's the worst feeling in the world to know that there is no game on the horizon

Stephen Hunt

Stephen Hunt

‘At half-time, Mick McCarthy just asked for more of the same and we felt we could do that. For some reason, we started the second half badly and Norwich’s first goal was damaging’
‘At half-time, Mick McCarthy just asked for more of the same and we felt we could do that. For some reason, we started the second half badly and Norwich’s first goal was damaging’

Do you remember when you were a kid and you played football all day until night came? Do you remember that feeling as the sun began to set, an anxiety that the game was going to end, a dread that there would be no more football until tomorrow?

I knew we would be out again the next day, but tomorrow's game was a fantasy, separated by an eternity of school and purgatory. On those evenings, I used to play until I could play no more. I used to try and overcome the darkness, insisting that I could still see the ball when I could see nothing, playing passes into the void, aiming for friends who had wandered off having surrendered to the night. I just wanted to play for one minute longer. I never wanted it to stop.

There are a lot of differences between the games of football I play now and the games I played as a kid. They say kids are cruel, well, adults are crueller and professional football is ruthless and unrelenting, a daily examination of your personality and its defects. But there is one thing that doesn't change, one thing that connects those games I played as a child with the ones I play today: we still hope there is some way we can postpone the end.

Monday

There is always another game apparently, but maybe not for much longer. I think positively and believe that Ipswich Town will reach the play-off final but if there is one difference between last week and this week, it is the knowledge, unspoken most of the time, that by Saturday it could all be over.

There is a difference between realism and pessimism. There is a clarity in knowing that the game that is coming this week is a winner-takes-all, loser-go-home finale, even if it is a gateway to another game.

If last week was tense with the anticipation of a play-off match against our fiercest rivals, this week is something else, something quieter. This week, it could all end.

This isn't to think negatively. When I think about the game, I can see only positive outcomes. On Saturday I went for a meal with some friends after the first leg. One of them pointed out that I always said 'When we beat Norwich next week' not 'if'. By the time you read this, that might sound stupid but it's not forced. There might have been a point when I noticed myself doing this but that was long ago and now it comes naturally.

But we also know it could be the end. I've been fortunate to get this chance at Ipswich and I've taken it as I've always had to do when fortune broke in my direction.

We hadn't scored against Norwich in the two league games this season so Paul Anderson's equaliser on Saturday was an important moment. Everybody had been riddled with nerves before the first game, you didn't know how it could go, so to get it out of the way, to play well and come from behind to equalise means that, whatever happens, we have been given a lift.

Tuesday

A confession: today a song come on and I know it will be in my head between now and Saturday. It is Olly Murs, which is why the confessing is necessary, but the words seem appropriate and they can take me from that place where I know it might be the end to the place where I think only positively.

I'll do what it takes to make this fly, oh

You gotta hold on

Hold on to what you're feeling

That feeling is the best thing

The best thing, alright

I'm gonna place my bet on us

I find music - even Olly Murs - can take me to that place I want to get to. In training I've been saying to the players that I'm like Tiger Woods, I save my best stuff for the Majors.

"Hunty, shut up." It became a kind of a catchphrase when I was at Brentford. We were top of the league and everything was going well. One night we played and lost in the LDV Vans Trophy. Nobody was too bothered but in the dressing room afterwards, I went off on one. This wasn't good enough. We all needed to up our game. Time to take a long hard look at ourselves. On and on I went until Steve Coppell intervened, "Hunty, shut up." From then on, the coaching staff would say it to me when they felt I might be about to launch into a pep talk.

Wednesday

Every road leads to Saturday. I watched Gianluigi Buffon playing for Juventus on Wednesday night and it gave me a boost. I remember him asking for my shirt after we played Italy in Liege.

After the Champions League game, Jamie Carragher talked about how relieved Barcelona will be to have avoided Real Madrid because of the emotional drain of playing against your fiercest rivals. We are playing in the East Anglian derby not El Clasico but the feelings are the same, the thought of losing is shit on every possible level.

Sometimes losing works out ok in the end. In 2011, I had a season with Wolves that had been frustrating with injury and as a pretty expensive signing, you feel you're letting people down and you feel people feel you're letting them down.

We were a point outside the relegation zone going into the last game of the season. Then we knew it could end too, there could be another relegation. I had been through them before, I didn't want to go through them again.

We were playing Blackburn, who were level on points with us. At half-time we were 3-0 down and in trouble. Blackpool were drawing at Old Trafford and our goal difference was going in the wrong direction.

I hadn't known many weeks like it. I said it was the most stressful week of my life but half-time might have been the most downbeat. We needed goals and we needed some other teams to start losing.

The manager and Terry Connor said all the right things. "Hunty, shut up," I said to myself but it wasn't going to happen and I had my say too.

In the second half, Jamie O'Hara scored but Birmingham had equalised at White Hart Lane so we needed another goal. The fans were chanting it, we knew it and the momentum took us towards their goal. When a long ball dropped to me just inside the box, I took a touch and curled it into the far corner. There I was, saving it for the Majors and I felt I owed the club after the season I'd had.

Thursday

A local journalist tweeted some figures about Norwich and Ipswich today. Norwich's squad cost £31.9m. Ipswich Town: £110,000. We are the underdogs but I feel like I've been an underdog my whole life.

These things bring us together. I'm not sure I've known a group as united as the Ipswich squad. Christophe Berra was at Wolves with me but he must have taken a vow of silence. He's a totally different man here, he's at the centre of everything but this club has a big centre and I might be accused of brown-nosing him, but the manager has a lot to do with that.

"Two games to go, Hunty," he said to me today. I had misheard him last week when I thought he said there were two games left. "Three", I said but it turned out he'd said "two more after tomorrow."

This is just another challenge and I feel I've built my career on them. When Reading were promoted to the Premier League, some people told me it was time I started thinking about another club, a Championship club, so maybe I can return again this year.

I watched Phil Brown and Southend tonight and I felt more nervous for them than I did for myself. Perhaps nerves come when I'm helpless.

Friday

Today finishes with shooting practice. If the early sessions this week were intense, Thursday and Friday have been relaxed. I think the manager was more pleased after last weekend than he had been the week before and while people say the next game is the only one that matters, your last game usually sets the tone for everything.

I've been at clubs where shooting practice doesn't matter but it does here. Here, everything counts as we try to make up the difference between us and the clubs with more money by never losing our intensity. It's good for my head to see the shots flying in. I know I'm not starting tomorrow but I will be ready.

After training we get straight on the coach and head for Norwich. A couple of games of cards and we're there. The truth is I'd prefer a longer journey, you're moving towards something, you're playing cards and lost in the laughter and desperate jokes. Once you arrive in the hotel, there's nothing to do and what you do can seem forced. It's all about waiting. Tick. Tock. Tick. Tock. Tick fucking tock. Waiting for tomorrow like I was a kid again.

Tonight, I watched the Brentford game and was sad for my old team but I'm really thinking about tomorrow, thinking about how the game could go, watching the match and imagining similar scenarios.

Saturday

I wake up early and there's just more waiting.

We expected Wes Hoolahan to be in the team because it gave us a boost last weekend when he started on the bench. We also felt the pressure was on them in front of their own fans. For 45 minutes, it worked out like that. Murph was outstanding upfront, winning everything and it looked like the kind of game that would be decided by a mistake and, with the pressure on the home side, I thought the mistake would be by them.

At half-time, Mick just asked for more of the same and we felt we could do that. For some reason, we started the second half badly and Norwich's first goal was damaging. Christophe was sent off when he handled the ball on the line and when we were down to 10 men, it allowed Wes to find that extra bit of space. Tommy Smith's equaliser made us think that the impossible could still happen but the odds were too long.

Mick had made two subs when Norwich got their third goal and I desperately wanted to get on. I felt I could make a difference but every player feels that, every player thinks that they would reach that ball or beat that man.

I knew Noel would be the next man to get on and it made sense. We needed a goal so I sat on the bench willing something to happen, wishing that the game could go on, hoping that my brother or someone else in this team I believe in could get us back into the game.

It didn't happen and at the end I went over to our supporters and a couple of Norwich fans said something to my brother so I dragged him away before it got serious.

And it was only later in the dressing room that I realised that this was it, we had reached the end. There is an emptiness at that moment. Is it like the feeling I had when I was a kid and I had finally accepted I couldn't play on in the dark? It's worse, much worse.

Everyone is affected, everyone at the club from those at the academy to the first team will hurt from this defeat. My contract is up and I'll talk to the manager about what happens next but sitting in the dressing room all I think about are these team-mates I believed in. It's tough when you see them with tears in their eyes.

Tonight I will go through every moment in my head but there is no game for two months, nothing to prepare for and the empty feeling is stronger than ever. Tomorrow I will get up and play with my kids and we'll head back to Ireland at some stage but one thing is the same as when I was a boy. Tomorrow is a long way away.

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