Thursday 12 December 2019

Stephen Hunt: Local derbies demand that you remain calm in the storm

We are more confident now, but cool heads and knowing your job will be vital on Friday

Stephen Hunt, Republic of Ireland, tackles Jan Polak, Czech Republic, for which he was sent off by referee Kyros Vassaras
Stephen Hunt, Republic of Ireland, tackles Jan Polak, Czech Republic, for which he was sent off by referee Kyros Vassaras
Stephen Hunt, Republic of Ireland, is sent off by referee Kyros Vassaras during a 2008 European Championship Qualifier between Ireland and the Czech Republic

Stephen Hunt

I've played in local derbies where there is great hatred but I don't think Ireland against Scotland qualifies as one of those. When I was at Wolves, there was supposedly a fan who would burn everything he'd been wearing after we played at the Hawthorns.

I used to love those games. Some people will tell you to stay cool. Some people will say don't let your heart rule your head but I was never so sure. I always thought if you ran around at a hundred miles an hour, you got the fans going and you got the rest of your side going.

The treatment James McCarthy and Aiden McGeady get could turn the atmosphere into something more like a typical derby. If they get the reception that's expected, it will add to the tension and I know the Ireland players will respond.

If you hear what a crowd is saying, you're not really doing your job. Have you ever sat in the stand and tried to figure out what a crowd is chanting? Well, if you do that on the pitch you're not engaged with what is happening, you might as well be in the stand.

Having said that, you are often aware of a low-level hum. I get it at plenty of clubs where the crowd is good at transmitting a feeling of hostility in my direction and I am good at using it to get the adrenaline going.

It has only really backfired on me once. In 2007, Ireland played the Czech Republic in Prague. I came on for John O'Shea who picked up an injury in the first half and immediately the crowd were on my case because of the Petr Cech incident that had occurred earlier that season.

What happened in the second half was an example of how some things are beyond your control. I made a tackle in front of the dug-outs. It was a tackle that might not even have been a booking in England but I would say it was naive in the context of the game. Their bench jumped up and started roaring and naturally the crowd did too. The referee acted quickly to remove this bad influence from the game and I got a straight red.

As I walked down the tunnel, the two benches were going at it so I don't think there were too many cool heads in that situation. I walked into the dressing room and John was sitting there. "What's wrong with you?" he asked, assuming I'd been injured too. "I've been sent off," I said, and as we sat there alone, we may have seen the dark humour in the situation.

But this game is going to be about more than naive tackles. The build-up will be important too and from what I've been told about Martin O'Neill, he gets that right.

When the players show up this week, there will be an expectant atmosphere. The Germany result ensured that but now there is a game that people will be talking about on the horizon and as the players turn up they will feel it.

The first thing is catching up, saying hello to the lads, the FAI staff, the medical team and, of course, the manager, so that he knows you're there and enthusiastic.

It's important that as well as the running about madly that some of us do, there are also calm heads. I've never seen any contradiction in the two. I could stay calm at a hundred miles an hour and I also knew that some of my opponents couldn't.

Once you might have expected the old clichés about fight and said it was time to prepare for a physical encounter but Scotland are different these days. I know they think it's the biggest game up there since they played Italy in 2007 and maybe Ireland can capitalise on Scotland's traditional struggles with expectation.

But they are a dangerous side. I've seen a good deal of Ikechi Anya and he is a player who needs to be watched carefully. He scored against Germany when their defence was pushed up and he broke free. There's no way you can catch him then so Seamus Coleman will need to choose his moments to get forward.

The manager will ensure every player knows his job and I imagine he will have a quiet word with everyone beforehand.

Trap used to do this in a group situation, which was good, but some players felt their weaknesses were being pointed out in front of everyone and they didn't like that.

It is important to be sure of your job. I played left wing-back for Reading in the cup against Spurs and I knew that Aaron Lennon would go on the outside eight times out of ten. If you're aware of this beforehand, the atmosphere doesn't take you by surprise.

Our strength could be our weakness. Under Trap, we were ice cold. We knew our jobs and in every game it was a case of going out and doing what was expected which obviously had its limitations too. These days we are more confident and if that means we can go out and play, great, but it's important not to lose sight of the essentials at the same time.

On the way to the ground on the bus, the players will know it's a different atmosphere. It will be quieter and people will be trying to break the tension with a joke.

You can always tell by the fans you pass on the way to the ground. For a game like this, they will be making more noise and maybe abusing you. It reminds you how important the contest is and every good pro I know will accept a bit of abuse if it means getting to play in a game as big as this one will be.

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