Saturday 18 November 2017

Stephen Hunt: Perception is everything when you're fighting for your future

Body language, physique and hunger crucial for out-of-contract players battling to stay in game

The way Zlatan Ibrahimovic has approached his United career is an example to any young lad. Photo: Reuters
The way Zlatan Ibrahimovic has approached his United career is an example to any young lad. Photo: Reuters
Stephen Hunt

Stephen Hunt

It doesn't matter whether you are a seasoned old pro with a few months left on a Premier League deal or a young lad at a League Two club hoping to get your first contract, the pressure is really on at this time of the season.

Everyone is feeling the heat. The benefit for teenage players is that they don't really know fear because most don't have the responsibility of being an adult yet. They are less likely to worry about the worst case scenario. The older players know what is at stake and they know they are fighting for their jobs.

This is not new, of course. Every year young lads across England and Scotland have their fates decided by their academy coaches. And some walk out of the manager's office with the worst possible news.

We all know lads who didn't quite make it, went home and threw it all away. Well, here we go again. Over the next few weeks, hundreds of boys will be at that crossroads. Then they have to decide how much they want to be a professional footballer.

They have to believe they can find a club and a manager who can see something in them, which they can take to the next level. You have got to believe in yourself. It's no good moping, this is the time to fight for your future.

When clubs are making decisions, it is not just based on their attitude over the last few weeks, as deadline day approaches. Most made their minds up months ago.

These are the moments young players have to be strong. Forget the pain of rejection, forget the homesickness, forget your mates back home. Put yourself and your career first and fight for your future in football. And play every game like it's your last.

This is the time of year the scouts are on the look-out for free transfers, so every game matters. Now they are starting to look seriously at the players who are being released and they want to sign the lads who take their football seriously. It's a point I keep hammering home to the players I'm working for.

Body language is so important, as well as your general physique. If you look even slightly out of shape, below peak condition, everyone sees it, and if you look lazy, or play in that way, it's a hard tag to get rid of.

I watched a lad last week in a nothing-to-play-for game; he's a laid-back kid, it's the way he plays, but his body language and commitment to his game was terrible. I laid into him afterwards. There were nearly 50 scouts watching. I told him that he has to play every game like it's his last.

I wonder about the Rotherham United players right now. They're gone but about 20 are playing to stay in the Championship with another club. If Rotherham go two or three down in a game now, it's the players who get on with it and carry on fighting who are more likely to get the moves than those whose heads drop.

Perception is all-important. Scouts are only going on what they see. And what they see matters. They're not bothered about stats, or exactly how far someone runs or how many accurate passes he makes. They're looking for character, ability on the ball, presence, and attitude. And hard work.

When I was coming towards the end of my contract at Brentford, I was injured and I knew I had to get fit. I did everything to sort my groin out, swimming, working in the gym. I knew if I didn't put the extra hard work in, I wouldn't get fit. Nothing worked.

This went on for 13 months. I was restricted in my running and as a 23-year-old, I was determined to fix it. Eventually, I got to see the specialist and every time he touched me, I exaggerated the pain, and he had fingers going here there, and everywhere; I just wanted him to open me up and see what the hell was wrong with me. In the end I got the surgery, and the contract, I needed.

It may seem extreme but I had to do everything to get fit and put myself in a position to prove I could play for Brentford and be a part of that team.

The introduction of the Bosman ruling saw the power in contract negotiations swing towards the players, and their agents, but clubs have reclaimed that power, particularly in the lower divisions. The majority of players are on one- or two-year contracts, which means they have to be injury-free and on top of their game on a consistent basis. They are constantly trying to get that next deal.

Clubs finances dictate how much players can be paid, and for how long, and there has to be a sense of realism for every player to fight for his living.

When it came to retirement, I was ready for it, because I had been planning what I wanted to do for some a while. You need that hunger to keep pushing for a new contract.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic obviously still has that hunger, which is why he will stay at Manchester United for at least another season. He has enjoyed himself in the Premier League and he still wants to prove he is one of the best and can lead United to greater things.

The way he conducts himself is clearly a front. But he backs it up with his goals and his presence and he has contributed more than anyone to United's season and the fact they are still in the chase for the Champions League places and still in the Europa League and FA Cup.

Ibrahimovic has been well paid but at his age, it would have been easy to treat this season as a farewell and a holiday. But from day one he has been brilliant and played like a man wanting to prove a point to the English football fans. There are not many like him around. He is the perfect role model for the United youngsters and you can tell from the way they interact that they love him and look up to him. The way he has approached his United career is an example to any young lad fighting for his future.

I used to watch John O'Shea and the way he worked and I knew that you had to work hard to get to the very highest level. And any time I thought I had made it as a footballer, was a time when the commitment I had to show what at its highest. I knew I had to work hard to stay at those levels and to compete to get in the Ireland team. You have to put the work in and look at yourself in the mirror and say, 'as a footballer, I have given absolutely everything today'. And it was not easy to get there all the time.

There are a lot of players who have been spotted by the big clubs for their potential, who get big rewards for doing very little, and too many of them seem happy with that. Too many believe things will come easily for them once they start to earn serious amounts of money for just turning up.

The biggest thing is will they have a clear conscience when they move to the next stage of their lives? Because if they are not prepared to work hard, they will get found out.

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