Stephen Hunt: No more mohican haircuts or sun glasses for me in play-off week
Play-off week was a time of preparation and reflection for Stephen Hunt
Published 10/05/2015 | 16:00
On Tuesday night, at half-time in the Champions League, I changed the channel and found myself hypnotised by a programme about a barge going down a canal. That was all it was, a boat going down a canal. It was filmed in real time and the entire programme was of a meander along a beautiful stretch of water. I lost myself in it and had to remind myself to switch back to the football.
Real time on TV is slower than real time in real life. I stared at the screen for a while watching everything that was happening on the water and by the canal. But I also began to think about something else, something I'd been thinking about since last Saturday. If real time is slower on TV, real time when you're playing your fiercest rivals in a game that could take you back to the Premier League seems to go on forever.
Monday began on Saturday afternoon at the end of a weird day. We came off the field at Ewood Park thinking it could have been a lot worse. Derby County were an example of that. They'd been in the top six all season but the last day had struck them cruelly and they wouldn't even be in the play-offs. Their season was over and we'd spent most of the game against Blackburn trying to make sure ours didn't end while trying not to take too many chances.
We returned to the dressing room knowing that we'd made it, that we were in a play-off, but there wasn't a feeling of satisfaction. Instead we felt we'd made things difficult for ourselves and when we came in on Monday, the manager reminded us that we had achieved our goal for the season. This is a club with a small budget, competing against sides with bigger wage bills, with parachute payments from the Premier League and a host of other advantages. We had done what we set out to do. We were in the play-offs. Maybe now we could enjoy the week? No chance.
I'm not sure you want to enjoy a week like this and I know that because I've been here before, enjoyed it all before.
It's 13 years ago but I remember the play-off final Brentford played against Stoke at the Millennium Stadium pretty well and I remember my haircut vividly. To get into the spirit of the occasion I walked down into the lobby of the team hotel on the morning of the game with a mohican, my sunglasses on and a smile on my face. I was taking those who said you should enjoy the day seriously. I was having fun and only later I realised that when they said you should enjoy the day, they didn't actually mean it. You can be relaxed, but only as a means to an end and that end should never be losing a final.
I remember I got so lost in the Stoke fans singing 'Delilah' beforehand that I almost forgot we had a game to play. When we lost, I thought it was just another defeat. I had my bags packed and I was straight over to Ireland on the ferry for the summer.
We'd over-achieved with Brentford that season and I was sure we'd be back, this was the start of something big for me and the club. Two years later I was still at Brentford and my future was uncertain. If someone had told me to enjoy a play-off final at that point, I'd have known it meant something other than a funny haircut.
On Tuesday morning, I woke up and knew it was time for a change. No stupid haircut this time but I had to shave. I didn't want anyone - the manager or his staff - thinking I was looking tired or lazy so the stubbly beard had to go. Nobody would think I rolled out of bed this morning and had barely remembered to get to training. I wanted the manager to notice that I was energetic. I wanted to look as sharp as I felt.
It was, I felt, a subtle signal to the manager, something he'd picked up on over the week that would make him notice me alongside the effort I'd be putting in in training.
'Hunty, you've shaved' was the first thing the manager says to me when I show up for training. I might as well have walked over and told him I'm well up for it and started roaring how much I wanted it in his face. Either way, the manager understands. I'm well up for it.
We didn't start training last week until 12.15 every day. The manager wanted us to train at the time yesterday's game would kick off. The idea was to get used to the time, to be sharp and ready. We started working on shape and this was something I was prepared for but it was still a disappointment. We prepared to play 4-3-3 and I know there's no room for me in that system.
I still know what I have to do and this is something that only comes with experience. I can see the young guys we have here now and they look at me the way I looked at the more experienced players back in 2002. 'Busy old man', they're thinking as I tell them that this is the Premier League we're playing for, these chances don't come around too often and they should be ready. They wait for me to finish before getting on with their lives which contain the necessary belief that the Premier League is where they're destined to play.
For some of our talented young players, it might be true but nothing is inevitable and these days don't come around frequently.
Our day off. Some weeks I might go back to the house we have in Birmingham but this week I'm in Ipswich all week and while it's great to experience what it means to people, it's important that you step away from it.
I would say the build-up is like the build-up to a big hurling match, a game that a county has waited all summer for. Everywhere you go, people ask about tickets and talk about Norwich. Tickets, Norwich, tickets, Norwich. It's all you hear.
It's great to tap into what it means for supporters but if there is a way of enjoying the week and performing to your best, it's by not being paralysed by how much it would mean to people if you won.
Because then you start thinking about how much it would devastate them if you lost and it matters a lot to every player too, that's the thing.
Maybe it matters in a different way but it matters because we are professional footballers and you want to do what's best for your career, you want to achieve all that you can achieve and you want to look after your family as best you can. We are playing for our children, that's how it sometimes feels and that's what I think it means.
Davy Fitzgerald has been staying with my brother and that has been great during this week when time moves so slow. I can talk about hurling with Davy and forget about what's coming up. He's also got a lesson in table tennis from the Hunt brothers while he's been here. On Wednesday I played a round of golf and did some media for the club. It's one of those weeks where it's best not to say anything. I'm not sure that's my strength but it's done and we're another day closer.
It's another day closer to the Premier League, or that's what we like to think. In 2009, I reached the play-offs with Reading. My time at the club was coming to an end and I think it was for a lot of players. We'd been relegated the season before so we had a squad with a lot of experience and were ready to go straight back up. We would have been automatically promoted but we lost to Birmingham on the last day of the season and then went out in the semi-final.
I think that took the wind out of a lot of players and, if I'm honest, maybe some of us, myself included, felt the team had run its course. We were playing for ourselves, trying to get a move and if there's one thing you need in a play-off, it's intensity.
It's easier said than done. People keep telling you how much money it could mean for the club and the game begins to feel bigger than any cup final.
We know how much it would be worth to the club or we hear the figures and try and compute them. £140m, they say, but there is more to it than that. The Premier League is where you want to be. It's like reaching the West End after a long time performing in Scarborough or someplace. The Premier League is where you want to be.
By now, it is hard to even pretend this is another week. We do the same things, go through the same routines, make the same jokes but everything is different. I did some finishing at the end of training because I always think I have a goal in me, although anyone who saw last week's game would dispute that. I missed a couple of chances so that's another reason I work on finishing,
On Friday night I watched Brentford play Middlesbrough. I wanted my old team to win and I felt nervous for them but maybe I just felt nervous for myself. When Middlesbrough scored late, I imagine how tough it would be, I think about what could happen tomorrow and time moves very slowly.
So this is it. I wake up at around 6.0. I go for breakfast in Ipswich at a place I know will give me porridge and all the right things to eat. Some of the lads try to force pasta down at quarter to eight in the morning but I'm too old for that racket now.
The pre-match routine is the same but when we sit in the dressing room beforehand, we can hear the crowd being warmed up outside. The MC goes from stand to stand and gets them to chant 'I've Never Felt More like Singin' the Blues'. Then the whole ground starts singing and I'm sitting in the dressing room thinking how much I want to play and how much you have to detach from the emotion while still using it to your advantage.
When Norwich took the lead on the break just before half-time, it was important we stayed calm. Bad thoughts can enter your head. You remember that they beat us twice this season and it brings a bit of anxiety into our play. It's also important not to be led by the crowd. They want a free-kick for every challenge and if you start agreeing with them, the sense of injustice grows.
We didn't get sucked into that and instead, in first half injury time, Paul Anderson equalises. Paul, like a lot of our lads, has an interesting story. He was going to be the next big thing at Liverpool at one point in his career but it didn't work out like that and following spells at Swansea, Nottingham Forest and Bristol City, he arrived at Ipswich. He was voted the worst player in training on Friday which goes to show, you can't tell much from Friday training.
Paul was our first sub yesterday when he came on for Luke Varney, who had snapped his achilles in the first half. Luke is a great lad and he was in tears in the dressing room when we came in at half-time which is another reminder of how far away things can sometimes be when they seem so close.
I didn't get on yesterday but the result was the only thing that mattered. At the end, the manager brought us all together on the pitch to acknowledge the supporters. When we did we could remember that he had met our objectives for this season, but now there are other goals. There's another long week now before the second leg. Just another week of waiting, another week of watching time pass slowly.
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