| 9.8°C Dublin

hunt is looking for love

A FULL HOUSE at the new Lansdowne Road for the first time, a team on the way to a major tournament and a nation smiling -- Ireland has fallen in love with the Irish football team all over again.

Maybe it all stretches back to June 16, 2002, when Mick McCarthy's side were ushered out of the World Cup finals by losing a penalty shoot-out with Spain.

Since then we've had a few highs, a few moments to savour, but only a few, as days and nights of pain have been more common.

All those draws (Israel, Switzerland) in Brian Kerr's time, all those nightmares under Steve Staunton (the shame of San Marino, losing away to Cyprus and then needing to come from a goal down to sneak a goal at home to the Cypriots. And playing 360 minutes of football against Germany and the Czech Republic and never coming within a sniff of beating them).

Irish fans booing Irish players was nothing new -- John Giles was booed, so was Eoin Hand -- and there were jeers, not cheers, when a Swiss win in Dublin called time on Mick McCarthy's reign.

But it seems like the affection is back, something that even the current crop of players are aware of.


"We all feel that we needed to qualify for a big tournament to feel loved, to a certain degree. It might turn out after tonight's game, if we finish off the job and secure qualification, that we feel loved," Stephen Hunt told the Herald.

"The demeanour of footballers doesn't help and if you're not producing results and not qualifying, then you will always be in the background. I always said, if we don't qualify we will be nobodies.

"If we do qualify we have a chance of making history. Since I came into the squad I said that we'd only do something if we qualify and we had to keep trying until we qualified."

Hunt was just in primary school when Jack Charlton's teams qualified in 1988 and 1990. When Mick McCarthy took his team to Japan and Korea in 2002, he was a young pro trying to make a career for himself with Brentford, having just finished up that season playing in England's fourth division.

The 30-year-old knows the status that players like Ronnie Whelan and Paul McGrath enjoy in Ireland, and he wants the current batch to do the same -- make themselves into true greats.

"Those players are legends and will always be legends but that's how we want to be remembered, to have played in a team that qualified and did well at the Euros," he says, the Waterford man aware of how things stand for those still in Ireland.

"The economy has hit us all. Everyone has friends and family who are struggling to get work, and if we -- the sports people of Ireland -- can do something to give people a lift then we have to try that," Hunt believes.

"Not just the footballers but the athletes and boxers going to the Olympics, the rugby team. Big sporting events are always well-supported in Ireland and they give people a lift.

"I know that the team at the World Cup 10 years ago gave me a lift. That inspired me to be involved with Ireland and if we do qualify it will be the best night of my life -- after my wedding and the day that my kid popped out.

"I was in Ireland watching on TV when the team qualified in 2002 and that is what I always aspired to.

"My missus is fed up hearing me say over the last few weeks that these Estonia matches were the biggest games of my life but that's a good way to be, it keeps you hungry.

"I am hungrier than ever to be involved, but six months is a long time in football and something in that time -- a bad injury or bad form with your club -- could cost you.

"I am determined to do everything I can to be ready for the finals, and if something happens, through injury or bad luck, then that's just life.

"Yyou can bet your life that every Irish player will be trying their hardest over the next six months to get into that squad."

Hunt played a big part in the previous two qualifying campaigns but he's only had a bit-part role in this group, just one start (away to Macedonia) and five sub appearances, so he'll relish a rare start tonight .

"If we qualify we will have raised the bar in terms of standard. I want to keep raising the bar, I need to do that to get into the starting 11. I know I'm coming on with 20 minutes to go in the game and doing okay, but I know I can get into the team, that's the challenge for me," Hunt added.

"I don't want to be sitting on the bench. I don't want to go to Poland and Ukraine and be sitting on the bench, coming on for 10 or 15 minutes, and have people saying 'he did well when he came on'. I want to play, I want to be the one setting up the goals and making an impact."