Saturday 16 December 2017

Stephen Hunt: The Cup has meaning - it just means different things to different people

'I always wanted medals in my career and I don’t have enough of them'. Action Images via Reuters / Carl Recine
'I always wanted medals in my career and I don’t have enough of them'. Action Images via Reuters / Carl Recine
Stephen Hunt

Stephen Hunt

I knew all about the magic of the Cup and I was determined to make my mark. Derby County were the visitors. They were big-time, well, bigger than Brentford, and I knew this was an opportunity for me. Did I care about the FA Cup or did I care about advancing my career? Probably both. I always wanted medals in my career and I don't have enough of them, but this day was about taking my opportunity.

In the first half, I scored with a free-kick from outside the box which curled in at the far post. I wasn't sure if I meant it but I really didn't care. We had a man sent off and I had a couple of more chances but didn't take them. I was flying around everywhere and when the final whistle went, I felt it was a personal achievement that we were in the fourth round.

I went looking for a star name to swap shirts with. Georgi Kinkladze had come on as a sub, but somebody had nabbed his already, so I made my way to the next biggest name, Malcolm Christie. We swapped shirts and in my head this was a solemn rite of passage. I was the young tyro, Christie was the established pro who would have seen something of himself in me, a reminder of what it was like to be hungry and starting out. His shirt would be a reminder to me of where I'd come from one day. My shirt would be a valuable memento. In retirement, Christie could look back and say he was there the day Stephen Hunt announced himself to the world.

I did a lap of honour like I was David Beckham, took a shower and walked out of the ground. In my head, this was the statement I needed to make, so nobody was more surprised than myself to glance into the away dressing room and see, amid all the discarded straps and water bottles, a Brentford jersey. I walked over and picked it up. 'Hunt' it said.

So Malcolm Christie didn't feel the same way about me that I did about him, that was fine. I picked up the jersey, went straight to the airport and headed home to Ireland with a lady friend. I was still thinking I was the business and it was magic. Not the lady, that didn't work out, but the feeling I had.

I found out later that John Gregory, who was the Derby manager, had flung my jersey on the ground as he gave Christie a bollocking. "You got done over by Stephen Hunt, who the fuck is that?" he said, or words to that effect. For whatever reason, Christie hadn't seen enough in my performance to decide to pick the jersey up again.

A few years later and I used to appreciate the FA Cup for another reason. Come the third or fourth round, I knew I'd be somewhere warm and sunny.

Steve Coppell sent myself and Kevin Doyle to Dubai one year. While the media were talking about the magic of the Cup, we were relaxing by the pool, feeling that we could do without that magic.

Coppell told the press we had injuries but he knew the rest is what we needed and the FA Cup came in handy. We could have a break while the competition went on. Maybe briefly you'd worry about losing your place, but when you're sitting in 30 degrees by the pool, that feeling doesn't last long. And that's the problem with the FA Cup. It has meaning, but it now means different things to different people.

I would never want to be in Dubai for an end-of-season league game, a play-off or even a Cup semi-final. But in the early rounds, it is too tempting to see it as an opportunity for some rest. Other games are more important for the club, for the player and for the financial aspects of clubs and players.

You might like to think that this shows how the game has gone wrong, but do you think players didn't care about the bonus they were on to win the FA Cup 40 years ago? They did, but they wanted to compete against the best at the same time. That hasn't changed, it's just that the FA Cup is not the place to do that any more.

The competition needs radical change. I would play the games in midweek, skip the replays and to hell with the tradition.

The greatest tradition the Cup had was what it meant to people. All the other stuff is irrelevant if you can't get that back.

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