Tuesday 17 September 2019

'There was nothing else after football, I was making it and that was it' - Stephen Hunt

Newly retired from a football career which brought him so much joy, Stephen Hunt has no time for sentiment as he plans for his future

Stephen Hunt
Stephen Hunt
Hunt celebrates scoring a penalty against Watford in 2008. Photo: Getty
Highlights from a varied career.

Miguel Delaney

If you see Stephen Hunt around these days, at his bar in Rosslare Strand or at a match, you may not recognise him. His father-in-law initially didn't. On finally deciding to retire from professional football this month, the 34-year-old's next decision was to cut that famous curly hair. New career, new image - but not without a lot of thought.

The easy conclusion would be that the flowing old style was one of convenience, a natural accompaniment to that rough-and-ready style of play. There was much more to it, though, and that is the case with almost every aspect of his career - something that quickly becomes apparent when you begin speaking to him about it. The hair wasn't a reflection of a carefree willingness to just run. It was part of a careful plan to stand out.

"Once we got to the Premier League with Reading, in 2006, I just decided to grow my hair," Hunt explains, thoughtful after a busy day adjusting to his new life. "Since then, I've always felt it was my image. And it was my power. The more you stand out in certain situations, the better. And, in the Premier League, there's more limelight. So it was more of that.

"I looked different, and played different to a certain degree, to the Premier League style. My game was more hustle and bustle, so it suited me to look rugged. And, if you play well, it gives you a strong image. The three or four years I had with Reading gave me that profile to have the hair the way it was.

"Then, when I was retiring, I was thinking, 'OK, if I'm going to go into different lines of work then I need to look a little bit more respectable' and, no matter what image I had on the football pitch, once I was playing well, you could pull it off. Now, time to get a bit more serious."

Highlights from a varied career.

And this is the thing with Hunt. As animated as he is, and for all the fun stories he tells - like the lower-league manager sincerely asking one of Hunt's teams, "how am I meant to manage England with you lot?" as they tried not to laugh - there has always been a seriousness underlying it. Those two sides reflects so much of his career, as well as one phrase he repeatedly uses about that career: "I became a football politician."

Knowing the limits of his natural game, Hunt realised he had to investigate every angle to give himself an advantage. That explains the hair.

It also explains why he's cut it, as he investigates other careers. Hunt certainly won't have the time to dwell on what he has achieved in the game. As well as his pub, Tides, his coaching badges, his media work, his column in this newspaper - which can be read again from next week - he's also looking into other options, maybe even agent work. Either way, he's going to be well briefed.

Hunt has spent the last few weeks speaking to all manner of football figures - from managers to chief executives to directors of football - "to pick their brains", to look at the other side of the game, the business side.

He admits to a degree of anxiety on sending a text message to one super-famous manager last week, feeling the need to explain who he was - right down to a physical description - as he asked could they meet for a chat. Joe Cole, his team-mate at his last club Coventry City, had a bet with Hunt as to whether the manager would respond.

You get the sense from talking to the 39-time capped Ireland international, though, that he could give even the most experienced football figures a few insights. He thinks about the game as deeply as anyone and, with the way he speaks about different aspects and realities of it - his responses to questions often involving a series of quick-fire tangents and truths on the sport that many would not consider - he could do his own version of Only a Game?; the modern professional's honest look at how the game actually works.

Hunt thinks about football so much that he won't actually miss playing it. He is not one of those former players with nothing else to do, who will sit there reminiscing about his past in an empty present. There was no Gary-Neville-against-West-Brom match either, no moment when he realised he just couldn't do it any more - but there was one unanticipated show of emotion amidst it all.

"I'll tell you when I knew," Hunt explains of the realisation retirement was close. "It was when I started to get buzzes off different things. So, whether it be watching a game . . . it could even be a TripAdvisor review of the restaurant! I still like playing football but I know it's better for me now to want different things. People say, 'aw, if you're enjoying football you should keep it going' but, no, not for the sake of a year or two just winding it down.

"In fairness, I finished playing the last few games left wing-back, a position that suited me. The second last game of the season [Coventry 3-1 Sheffield United] was supposed to be my last game. I asked the manager [Tony Mowbray] could he consider picking me and he said I was playing anyway, so I brought my family along, knowing it would be my last game. That was quite emotional for them. For me, it wasn't, because I just wanted to play well. So it didn't really touch me then. But, the week after, the manager said to me, 'oh, you played well last week, we're playing Oldham'. Now, in fairness, I didn't really fancy finishing my career at Oldham, but it was another game, and the set of lads I played with, I enjoyed their company, so I said 'OK, no problem'.

"I literally went to the pitch for a walk around by myself, and, with music playing, I got a little bit emotional then. I was thinking, 'OK, this is actually going to be the last time I step on an English football pitch.' That was hard, I have to say, partly because I was by myself. When I started off, I came over by myself, and when I finished, I was by myself, at this game, away from everybody that knew anything."

It is probably that background that explains much of Hunt's approach to the game, why he felt he had to look for different types of advantage. There is a sense of pride at how his career progressed to the point it did, given how it started.

"I jumped on a plane at 18 and literally plonked myself down, where only the strongest survive. Only players who have done it will know what it's like."

Hunt was single-minded from the start, as he battled his way through Crystal Palace to his proper break at Brentford and then on to Reading.

"There was nothing else after football, I was making it and that was it. I never got sucked into going out with a lot of the lads for 'the Tuesday club'. Now, don't forget I'm living in south-east London where it's cockneys, full of Jack-the-lads, full of attitude. My first couple of drinks, actually, were probably 20, 21, with my friend in Ibiza and, yes, I was probably a disgrace that week but it was the right time to be a disgrace. There were no cameras around. I probably feel for Jack Grealish in that way. I was always very selective about when I had a few drinks. After my first international cap [in early 2007], I ended up back in Coppers almost going bananas, but it was the crest of a wave! I never really bought into the excitement of being a first-year pro or anything like that, I just wanted to get my head down and work hard. I always liked the fact that I had to prove people wrong or the odds were against me."

Despite that, there was only one manager that Hunt says he disliked.

"The only person I never got, and never will, was Martin Allen [at Brentford]. His man-management skills I didn't get, what he wanted from people, but he has his own successful style to a certain degree.

"I had a problem with my groin, that I couldn't fix, and he questioned whether I was willing to play. He didn't see me doing swimming sessions until 10 o'clock at night, when I was 24 years of age, trying to get fit again. I'd tell him I was doing extra sessions but he questioned it. He's obviously treated me well since but you always remember when someone questions your professionalism. It hurts."

It's perhaps not a coincidence that Hunt cites that exact age as when he properly became "political" about the game.

"When I was younger, I would have been less calm, I wouldn't have been educated about the game as much, probably just a little country boy, shouting for the sake of shouting. But, as you get older, seven or eight years learning the trade, watching people, learning how people react to situations. . . I studied the game from 18 to 24, when things were good and bad, learning a lot about the game.

"The biggest thing with a manager these days, you have to plant seeds in their heads, and try and get inside their heads almost. I'd always say I was inside Mick McCarthy's head for a couple of years [at Wolves and Ipswich Town] but he might surprise you every now and then. Generally, nine times out of 10, I knew what he was thinking.

"I always try and do what the manager wants me to do. Sometimes my reaction would be to get after the ball and win it back but I had to be restricted in how I did it and what I did, and whether the manager wanted me to cross it at a certain time or not.

"The biggest example of that would be [Giovanni] Trapattoni. I knew within five days what he wanted. Even with the language, I knew how he wanted the wingers to play, I knew exactly what he wanted, what he needed. Maybe I didn't know how strict he'd be all the way through but I got a gist of what he wanted straight away, so you obviously take it all in and do what the manager wants and take it from there."

Despite that, he admits there were still plenty of moments when his mouth got him into trouble.

"Aw, too many times!" he laughs. "I've gone, like, 'what have I said there, why didn't I keep my mouth shut like?', but that's probably me as well. I can see myself some times, I wind Mick McCarthy up. But I've also gone, 'well, at least I've been myself!' and then he'll see me trying my bollocks off the next day.

"I think I probably regretted giving out to Marco [Tardelli] after the game against Italy [in Euro 2012], when he told me I'd be playing the night before, and I didn't play. I was devastated, I told him to 'fuck off'. But understandable as that is, I still regretted talking like that to him, because of the legend he is. Even if it was a very sad moment for me, it was how I did it. There are ways of doing things, and the way I did it made me regret that."

It worked both ways. Hunt remembers one manager - he of the England claim - whose comments would regularly make the players have to stifle laughter.

"I have been in a changing room where players are tapping my knees going, 'I can't believe what this man is saying.' And trust me, you're holding in the tears from laughing, because you've had the banter about it, you know it's coming and then you go, 'oh my God, he's saying it, I can't believe it'."

There was also one manager who knew how to shut Hunt up - the one he also looks up to the most, Steve Coppell. "When he had signed me at Brentford, we were going well in the league and played the LDV Vans trophy away at Wycombe and lost. For whatever reason, I came in and was shouting at players, 'what the hell was that, that's not good enough', and he just goes, 'shut up Hunty'. It was one of them ones. His way of just going, 'be quiet will you, I know you're right but it's the LDV Vans - it's not important'.

"He would use me sometimes for banter. He knew how to play the jokes, how to get me going, give me a little nudge to fire a bullet at someone, have a little go at someone just to get him going. And that would be it then! That would be my job done almost! I'd get the lads livened up a little bit.

"He was almost my dad, though. I could tell what he was going to do straight away, his reactions to things. Everyone has a manager they look up to, and what they've done for them in their careers, and he would be one for me, and I'm very grateful to him.

"I even use plenty of his sayings now. He's planted seeds in my head, to a certain degree. The man just oozes class. He's very shrewd, and I'd love to learn even more off him."

It was under Coppell that Hunt learned what the elite level was really about, as Reading reached the Premier League in 2006. There was still a reminder, however, of how they had to get up to speed.

"We got peanuts for getting promoted. Sheffield United, who finished second, were laughing at us, at the money we got. I'm not talking twice as much, it was nearly four, five times what we got! Footballers talk. A footballer will talk to one mate, who will talk to another at a different club, and all of a sudden, you hear what Leicester City got for winning the Premier League - 'they should have got more than that!' But, with Sheffield United, I was the only one who said 'well, we have a medal and you don't', and then obviously reality sets in and you think the money would have been nice! But then we finished eighth the next year and they got relegated, so . . ."

That perhaps comes from the way Reading - and especially Hunt and Kevin Doyle - were willing to seize the chance now they were there.

"It was the height of our hunger, the height of our desire to do well in the game, we were going training in the summer to get to the level of fitness we wanted to get to, training harder than we ever did. We were just buzzing, delighted to be in the Premier League."

But he didn't let himself get carried away.

"I analysed myself every Monday morning, I'd have the stats, five seconds either side of my clips, my passing, my tackling, whatever. I wouldn't analyse the team, I'd analyse my own bits. I'd be sick of the sight of myself!"

Hunt became the focus of international attention when he was involved in the infamous incident with Petr Cech at Chelsea, but it was telling that Jose Mourinho saw him and Doyle in Harrod's a few weeks later and shook their hands. The flashpoints with the famous became more frequent.

"I actually find it amazing seeing Ronaldo now, in comparison to the skinny boy I played against. I have a picture of when Rooney chased me back and booted me as hard as he could. We squared up. It was a buzz. We didn't even say anything to each other. It was just the buzz, the adrenaline, and me, the underdog, proving that I can stick up to you. That proved to me back then I didn't really give a shit who you were . . . but looking back at it, I go, fucking hell that's Wayne Rooney, what were you doing? So you go 'what were you thinking, like?'. But that's what made me good."

It was also what got him his first Ireland cap, in early 2007, even if the fact debut came during the infamous 2-1 win in San Marino ensured it didn't actually feel real until his second match against Wales.

"My debut was weird, especially since that game - with Stephen Ireland getting the late winner - was just a relief. But, by God, against Wales and the reception I got coming on, the first few games I used to come on at Croke Park were probably the highlight of my Irish career. That was living the dream."

It was an odd time on the international front as Steve Staunton was under such pressure.

"It was easier for me because I hadn't played with him, so the lads that did probably felt a little bit more. I was grateful he gave me my debut but I didn't care who the manager was, I just wanted to play for Ireland.

"Why it went wrong? Don't get me wrong, I think Stan struggled. These days as a manager you have to say the right things, do the right things. John O'Shea is PR perfect so will go into management, the way he is; says the right things at the right time, thinks about what he says, very intelligent."

He also expects McCarthy to aim for the Irish job one more time.

"I think he'd like another whack at it, to really put down a stone . . . I think he deserves to go at it again if he wants it, full steam ahead, whether it's after this campaign or whether it's the World Cup campaign after Martin - maybe Roy will have something to say about that. It's his honesty, his handling, he turns you into a man."

Hunt's opinions on Trapattoni are "mostly positive".

"Why? One, because he trusted me, how he wanted to play and, two, he was a gentleman, an absolute gentleman."

Hunt has written before in this paper about how disappointed he was not to play at Euro 2012, but that wasn't the only occasion, even if he admits the timing of one sentiment is rather odd. He must be one of the few Irish people who doesn't think of the handball when Paris 2009 is mentioned.

"Honestly, I remember getting on the plane back, and thinking 'how has he not brought me on there?' 'How have I not played there?' Footballers are greedy, you want to be part of the history, good or bad, you want to be involved in it, you want to be able to change history, that's why you play football, they want to make history, they want to be remembered, footballers are attention-seeking people, in the limelight, they play at a level they want to be heroes."

Hunt did get the experience of playing with his brother Noel for his country and Reading, even if it did lead to some mixed feelings.

"I felt awkward with him to be honest. Because I wanted him to do well. Playing at Reading with him it was great, but it did make things complicated - in terms of where you were crossing it. You might say you're just playing the right pass but, in the back of your head, it was always there: 'where's me brother?'"

Appearing together for Ireland for the first time against Poland stands out as one of the most special moments of that career, as well as the 87th-minute goal against Blackburn Rovers that kept Wolves up on the last day of the 2010-11 season. But, as ever with Hunt, it is not the most obvious things that he will remember from his time in the game. Nor would his most cherished club be the one you'd expect.

"When times are tough, I believed in myself, that'll be the proudest thing. To scoring my first Premier League goal, on New Year's Day against West Ham in a 6-0 win, to my career over here obviously, getting relegated and seeing the Hull fans back their team like they'd won the Champions League in a different atmosphere. That's why maybe I have the affection I have for Hull, the second half of the season and the fans were singing, 'I can't help falling in love with you', which, for that moment in that time, was so loving towards the players, fair play like, you guys appreciated the Premier League and the memories they've given you."

Hunt is now ready to appreciate his time out of the game.

As for that bet with Cole? Hunt won it. The super-famous manager did respond. They're set to meet in the next few weeks. The biggest question might be whether the manager recognises him.

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