Saturday 7 December 2019

Stephen Hunt: GAA players would find life tough in Premier League

Joe Brolly got it wrong over role models claim - reality is it's all rest, no play in top flight, writes Stephen Hunt

Stephen Hunt

There are things you do as a professional footballer that look extreme, but are only ways of protecting yourself.

I heard Joe Brolly a couple of weeks ago saying that soccer players weren't role models. I think footballers can be role models, even if one or two let people down, but I get the impression with Joe that he feels we lack the spirit of the true Gaels he admires so much. As somebody who grew up in the GAA, I can tell you that, as much as I love the games, if GAA players tried to live with the level of commitment shown by a professional footballer, they wouldn't know what hit them.

Of course, the headlines are taken by some player who falls out of a nightclub, but that isn't the reality for most Premier League players.

When I was at Reading, I lived half a mile from the training ground. Each day, I would get in my car, which was of the required status for a Premier League footballer, and drive 800 yards to the training ground.

I wasn't being flash, I just felt I had to rest. My life was dedicated to rest and then more rest. I would never go out and when I say 'go out', I don't mean a night out, I mean out. I never left the house. All I did was train and rest, train and rest.

That sense of responsibility has never left me, even if as you move on in life and have kids, you have to leave the sofa every now and then. They can't make their own way home from school.

A couple of weeks ago, I drove from Ipswich to meet a friend at the airport hotel in Stansted. As we were leaving later that day, I said to him that I shouldn't really have made the 45-minute journey as it was important that I rested. He knows a bit about football, but he was surprised that I would need to rest that much. It is all about rest and if you want to make it as a footballer, you have to understand that.

It's such a mundane thing in so many ways, but I would say that more players fail to break through because they don't understand that. Of course, some of them aren't resting because they're in the pub or in a nightclub, which brings in other factors. They aren't resting and they are as far away from resting as they can be.

I see it with lads who come over from the League of Ireland and think they've got it made. They're out all the time, not necessarily in the pub, but not necessarily not in it either.

I had natural talent, but I saw so many kids who were better than me and thought they were going to make it. They were picked for all the Irish teams while I struggled, in part I think because I wasn't from Dublin. It helps to realise at an early age that there are going to be setbacks.

When I made my debut for Ireland's under 21s, 15 minutes as a sub in Kilkenny, I came back to Crystal Palace the next day and was called into the manager's office. I thought I was going to be congratulated, but the manager, Alan Smith, told me I could find another club.

I remember going for a long walk around the pitches that day and thinking that I didn't want the players who I was in competition with for a place to grow in confidence because they would see me upset.

That's the way it's always been for me. I knew it was the survival of the fittest and I couldn't let anything get in the way.

There were times when I was younger when it was tough. I was released by Brentford when I was 24 and I hadn't made a penny from the game. Then I could have cut and run. I got an offer from Bradford and was going to sign a three-year contract. I arrived on a plane from Dublin and was ready to sign when I got a message from Steve Coppell, who was at Reading, and said he'd pay the same money for a one-year deal.

The Bradford chairman was waiting for me in arrivals and I walked out and told him I want to sign for Reading.

He persuaded me to come and do a medical anyway, but I knew I had to stay focused. After I did the medical, I told them I wanted to sign for Reading. Football is all about mental strength.

These days, the game has gone so fast and they have all the stats, so there is nowhere to hide.

Before Euro 2012, I was struggling with a groin injury, but I was convinced it was in my head. My wife used to watch a couple called the Speakmans on daytime TV, who dealt with phobias and anxieties and she told me about them. I headed up to see the Speakmans and spent five grand for an hour's consultation. I don't know if it helped, but they seemed happy.

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