| 9.8°C Dublin

Hunt: I don't have any fear

WATERFORD UNITED man Gary Dempsey will fill the role of proud dad when Reading face up to Manchester United at the Madejski Stadium tomorrow, as his little boy, Jack, is Reading's mascot for the game.

That pre-match handshake and photo opportunity could be the closest anyone in a Reading shirt gets to United when the Royals, second from bottom in the Premier League, take on the league leaders, the bookmakers already deciding that Reading - at odds of 7/1 - have no hope of getting a result.

Reading striker Noel Hunt, Dempsey's close pal and former team-mate at Dunfermline, knows that his side have been written off without a ball being kicked. United have been solid if unspectacular this season but are still expected to swat away Reading without too much fuss.

But being written off, whether as part of a team or as an individual, suits Hunt. "Playing United in the Premier League, it's the stuff you always wanted in your career," the 29-year-old told the Evening Herald.

"It's a massive challenge and we are underdogs. No one is expecting anything from us, everyone in the country expects us to get beaten apart from the people in our dressing room and that's all that matters to me.

"We have a great belief, and if we can get to the levels we were at last season we can do well.

"Will I be nervous? I don't feel any nerves; every minute I have played in this league I have enjoyed it.

"I'm looking forward to the United game as I haven't played against them before, I've played against Man City and some of the other big boys but not United.

"Tomorrow is a hard game for us. We can score goals okay, I have no fears about that, but our problem is at the other end. Going up against United is not a problem for us, we have every confidence we'll score against them, but it's how we defend that counts, we have only had one clean sheet all year.

"In the last few weeks we took the lead in a lot of games - Wigan, QPR, Fulham - but dropped points in those games. So if we can cut out the problems at the back we'll be okay," says Hunt, who is relishing his chance to dine at the top table in England, nine years after he left Shamrock Rovers to try his luck abroad.

He also has a point to prove to the international team manager, who has overlooked Hunt despite his current status as a Premier League player, Hunt's last cap coming back in 2009.

"At the start of the season my aim was to get a few goals and I've got three already, and against decent sides. I scored against Newcastle and Arsenal, and Swansea too," he says.

"This is what I have been doing all my life, proving people wrong. When I went to Scotland people told me I wasn't good enough for that level, that I wouldn't be a player in the SPL - and I ended up being second-top scorer there one season," he stresses.

"Hearing things like that made me more determined to prove that I was good enough, that I can play. It's about using the negative and turning it into a positive."

Hunt has managed to play a part for Reading this term, staying in Brian McDermott's plans while others - like compatriots Ian Harte and Alex Pearce - have been sidelined. But the taste of Premier League football is one he wants to savour again and again.

"This is a hard league to play in, the best league in the world. I have waited a long time to play in the Premier League in England and I don't want that experience to be over after a year, I spent four years with Reading trying to get here and I want it to last," he admits.

"It is a step up in quality when you go to the Premier League but I am used to that, at every stage in my career I have had to move up a grade and I've done it.

"I went from junior football to the First Division in the League of Ireland, then the Premier Division in Ireland, then the SPL, then the Championship in England.

"Thankfully, after four years in that division, I managed to get out of it and get into the Premier.

"This is the first time I've been with a team which has lost more games than it won. At Shamrock Rovers we came close to winning the league, in Scotland we finished high up in the table - we finished fourth and third, got to a Cup final.

"In my first year at Reading we reached the playoffs. After that we reached the playoff final and then got promoted, so my winning ratio has been good and I want to keep that going, and I want more goals.

"I had a nice run in the side earlier this season. I scored three goals in three games, including one against Arsenal," says Hunt, who admits that the League Cup clash with the Gunners, a 7-5 extra-time win for Arsenal, was one of the craziest games of his career.

"When you go 4-0 up after 40 minutes - I scored the fourth - you presume you will go on to win the game. It's mind-boggling how it ended."

Norwich City have set an example for Hunt's club, as they won at home to United last month, while luckily for McDermott the Royals board have not copied the panicky moods of other teams by sacking the manager for having the side in the relegation zone.

"I think the club will give our manager time, and rightly so," Hunt says.

"With the little money he's had to spend, Brian has done wonders.

Some teams in the Championship spend millions every year, buy players for £5million or so, but I can't remember the last time this club bought a player for over a million quid, and yet we got promoted.

"It was down to good business from the club and good man-management from the manager.

"We are in the big league now and we have to step up. The manager just picks the team, he's not out there on the field, so it's up to the players to start winning games and get ourselves further up the table."