Sport Soccer

Sunday 22 April 2018

Noel Hunt offers hope to Ireland's rising stars who fear the door to the Premier League is closed

Noel Hunt in action against Italy in 2009
Noel Hunt in action against Italy in 2009
Kevin Palmer

Kevin Palmer

Noel Hunt has urged Ireland’s rising stars to target England’s Championship division as a launch pad for their careers, after admitting the doors to the Premier League have become almost impossible to break down.

Former Ireland striker Hunt, who is hoping to take his place in the Wigan side for Monday night’s FA Cup fifth round tie against Premier League leaders Manchester City, has told us that the traditional pathway to English football’s top clubs has now been blocked by the influx of expensive foreign stars.

Yet the striker who has enjoyed a decade in English football with Reading, Leeds, Ipswich, Southend and Portsmouth insists life in the lower leagues can be lucrative and rewarding for rising Irish stars.

“The dream of a young kid coming out of Ireland and going straight into a top Premier League team many be gone, but my career shows what is possible by following a different route,” Hunt told us.

“I never thought I’d make it as a footballer after starting out as a goalkeeper and being told I was too small to have a career in the game, but I was in the right place at the right time on a few occasions and have had a great decade in England.

“The wages on offer in the Championship now are akin to what we used to see in the Premier League when I started out in England and even in the division below (League One), there is a good living to be earned playing football at a very high level.

“Everything has moved up a few levels. A lot of teams in the lower leagues now try to play football on the ground and that wasn’t always the case when I first came over here.

“Also, the physicality and pace of the game has gone up a couple of notches, with the leap in quality even more obvious when you look at the top Premier League clubs.

“The money flowing into England’s big clubs means they can sign the best players in the world and that has made it hard for English and Irish kids coming into the game, so the Championship is a league you should be aiming to get into now.”

The lack of Irish names on Premier League team-sheets each weekend has sparked fears for the future of our national team, but Hunt suggests players thriving in the second tier of English football could deliver a new era of success for Martin O’Neill’s Ireland.

“Apart from the handful of superstars like Robbie Keane, Damien Duff and Richard Dunne, we have tended to have a squad that has been full of players from lower league Premier League clubs or Championship clubs in recent years and there is nothing wrong with that,” he continues.

“I look at a nation like Iceland and they have enjoyed great success on the international stage over the last few years despite only having a small group of players and not many of those are playing at Europe’s top clubs.

“If Ireland are picking players who are in form and playing for the bigger Championship clubs, there is no reason why we can’t follow the example of Iceland and qualify for major tournaments.”

At the age of 35, Hunt is edging towards the end of his well-travelled career, so a date with Pep Guardiola’s runaway Premier League offers up the enticing prospect of a final golden moment in his story.

The FA Cup clash at the DW Stadium will be a repeat of the 2013 FA Cup final that was famously won by Wigan, with Hunt hoping a repeat is possible five years on.

“City have been incredible from day one this season and we all appreciate what we are up against in this game,” added Hunt.

“They are on a different level to everyone in England at the moment, but we have had a great season and are in good position to get promotion, so this is a free match for us to express ourselves and see where it takes us.

“I hope to play a part in this game, but I accept that my role in this side is to do a job for the manager when he the need arises as I’m at the stage of my career where I cannot complain if I don’t play every game.”

Northern Ireland striker Will Grigg may get the nod to start for Wigan against City, but Hunt can dare to dream he will be the super-sub who ends City’s march towards an unprecedented quadruple trophy haul in what would be a memorable high point at the back end of a fine career.

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