Monday 23 April 2018

Stephen Hunt: Sport provides endless possibilities and endless cruelty

Stephen Hunt went to St Andrews and came face to face with his own - and Tiger's - future

Tiger Woods of the U.S watches his tee shot on the 17th hole during the first round of the British Open golf championship on the Old Course in St. Andrews, Scotland, July 16, 2015.
Tiger Woods of the U.S watches his tee shot on the 17th hole during the first round of the British Open golf championship on the Old Course in St. Andrews, Scotland, July 16, 2015.
Stephen Hunt

Stephen Hunt

Even now, even after all these years, I still find myself getting carried away by the endless possibilities of sport.

I shouldn't feel that way at this stage of my career, but I do. I'm 33, I'm searching for a club and I'm living the answers I gave in interviews when I was asked about the future: "I want to stay in the game, I want to do my badges." They're the answers we give when we're asked. Some players say it when they don't mean it, some players say it when the answer they'd really like to give is: "I'm minted, I never need to work again and the sooner I can get out of the game, the better. A couple more years and I won't have to do any more interviews with fools like you."

I've always meant it, but real life isn't theory. In the real world, I'm excited about the future but wondering where it will take me, which is why I felt the benefit of a trip to Scotland last week.

On Tuesday, I grabbed a bag, stuffed some clothes in and hit the road. I picked up my mate, Kevin Foley, and we got a train to St Andrews. We were backpacking, we hadn't booked a hotel, we just wanted to go up and watch a practice round at the British Open. I'm not sure Kev would come with me again.

When I say I wanted to watch a practice round I make it sound like a more academic pursuit than the reality. The truth is I wanted to see Tiger Woods, I wanted to meet Tiger Woods and I wanted to tell Tiger Woods that nobody in the history of sport has inspired me like he has inspired me.

The sadness about Tiger is that, even as I write, I worry that I should make it clear that I mean he has inspired me by what he has achieved in the sporting arena, not his private life. Tiger, one of the greatest sportsmen of all time, is known to many simply for what happened in the bedroom and, if all the stories are true, many, many hotel rooms.

None of that stuff interests me and perhaps there is a part of me that wants it not to be true. When it comes to Tiger, I am a believer - and I believe that he can still be the golfer he was ten years ago.

When we got to Scotland, we finally found a hotel in Dundee and headed to the course on Wednesday morning. As we walked there, I saw Tiger's caddy. I ran back to get a picture with him, but I wanted to talk about Tiger - to tell him that I was a professional sportsman too, and I had some ideas for getting his man out of his trough. Instead, all I got was a stupid selfie and I was kicking myself.

The whole day was therapeutic and more inspirational than anything I've experienced in football in some time. There's nothing like getting out of the bubble. I feel something similar when I watch hurlers play. It enthuses me and makes me want to get back to my own game.

Right now, I'm not too sure where my own game will take me. Last season helped me understand how much I want to keep playing, but this summer I'm trying to find a club that thinks I should keep playing too.

There are a couple of options and there was an opportunity to go abroad, but it wasn't the right move.

I have been doing my own pre-season but also thinking about the future which is almost here. Two weeks ago I finished my UEFA 'B' course in Dublin after ten days of instruction, which were another reminder of how much I want to stay in the game.

I couldn't get enough of it. I've always been aware of what I need to do as a footballer to make an impact. I need to work hard and keep running. Some people think this means that I'm dashing around mindlessly but I always feel in control. If I become a coach or a manager, I'd like to think I'd surprise people with my football brain. If I manage, it won't be Stephen Hunt, the player - I'll be a different person.

The course allowed me to test myself, to find out how much that person knows about the game. It was run expertly, in my view, and it made me feel more hopeful about the future of Irish football - even if there are still a lot of things that have to change.

As a kid, all I dreamed about was making it to England, but if a son of mine wanted to be a professional I think he'd be better off heading to a country like Belgium to be educated there.

I think we need to change the emphasis. As kids, getting to England means a lot and too many players get there and think they've made it. Going to a country like Belgium, where they think differently about football, would also underline to a young player how far they have to go.

We talk about great young players when all they have is potential. Go away and learn about life and football in a country where they don't think you're a celebrity if you sign a pro contract at 17. You haven't made it then - you haven't even begun, in truth.

At St Andrews, I walked around with Shane Lowry for a couple of holes. Shane is one of the top 50 golfers in the world. It's an amazing accomplishment, but people still think he's fair game for abuse when he is one of our finest sportsmen.

At the end of the day, I went and watched Tiger practice again. There weren't many people and, to me, it was just me, Tiger and my new friend, his caddy. I was so caught up in the moment I nearly jumped into Tiger's car when he went to leave. Maybe then I could have told him what I wanted to say.

I left St Andrews on Wednesday night believing in sport again, believing that Tiger could win The Open.

I hope to find a new club before the start of the season. On Thursday I got a haircut. The grey hairs are showing and I need to look as youthful as I feel.

I watched the golf on the BBC app while I had my hair cut and watched Tiger struggle as I never believed he could struggle. Sport has endless possibilities, but it sometimes has a cruel way of telling you that the future is now.

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