Wednesday 25 April 2018

Stephen Hunt: It's worrying what ambitious youngsters will do to stand out

Kevin Doyle and I worked hard for our success, but young players could be tempted to take shortcuts
Kevin Doyle and I worked hard for our success, but young players could be tempted to take shortcuts
Stephen Hunt

Stephen Hunt

I saw a line from Steven Gerrard last week where he said he'd like to be 25 and doing it all again. I wouldn't mind having 10 more years in football, but one thing I know is that I wouldn't want to be 18 and trying to make it today.

When I was at Reading, I would make sure I got to the gym regularly. Myself and Kevin Doyle were part of a small group that regularly did extras, but we were exactly that, a small group. We took confidence from the knowledge that we were doing more and training harder than lots of players. It helped instil a feeling in me that I was unbreakable.

I was training at St George's Park last week as I keep pushing myself to be ready when a club comes along, and one of the things that struck me was that every young player does extra work in the gym now. Every one of them.

This got me thinking and it got me worrying. There is such pressure to succeed these days that I don't know how much further it can go. Well, I do. That's what I'm worried about.

Most young players want to make it as professionals because it's something they've dreamt about since they were boys. But there is a soundtrack to a professional's life that you learn to block out. I'm not sure young players who haven't even signed pro forms will be able to ignore it as easily.

I'm talking about money. I read an article about pushy parents last weekend and laughed at a quote from one mother who described her son who was at an academy as her "pension". I laughed because it was familiar to me, this idea people outside the game form that every footballer is set up for life or will be once they're taken on at an early age.

I'm one of the lucky ones, but most footballers, most players who star in academy sides, will not be so fortunate. The truth is, they'll be lucky if they enjoy a career at a lower league club, a career that is rewarding, but also unpredictable. I'm not sure how many people would be content knowing that one bad tackle - one misstep even - could jeopardise your livelihood and your ability to take care of your family. Strangely, it's not something that people outside football often acknowledge. They just want to talk about money, usually with some comment that Raheem Sterling is overpaid.

These players are the minority of the minority, and nobody talks about lawyers or actors who make money in the same way. They only bring up bankers because they ruined the world.

Football is a game the world loves and the rewards can be tantalising. These days, the edge needed is extraordinary and I worry it will get worse as players are told by unscrupulous or ignorant advisers what they could do with the money they'd make.

Twenty years ago, a player at the very top could be set up for life. Now he can be set up and his brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts and cousins once removed can be looked after, too. The twice removed will be doing ok, too. So a young player with a bit of talent can hear a lot of noise. I worry that this filters into the minds of the players who are trying to make it in an environment that is ultra-competitive and I worry what will happen over the coming years in pursuit of the edge.

Ten years ago, I could get an edge by spending time in the gym, but if everyone is doing that, what's next?

Look at rugby. I really hope the Irish team do well in the World Cup, I'm a huge fan of them and of Joe Schmidt. But that's a sport that seems to have reached the edge. The players have got bigger and bigger, the hits have got harder and the crowd want more. People will get seriously injured if they're not careful.

Football is a little different, but not so much that people can be complacent. Players will keep getting faster and stronger and I'd love if coaches took the emphasis away from the physical aspects of the game and went back to some of the old methods which let natural talent flourish a little more.

These guys I talked to at St George's Park clearly thought of nothing but football. Their minds weren't corrupted by ideas of money because, in my experience, if you put money first, you lose everything. Of course, you get the best contract once you're in that position, but football comes first.

I worry that things will change. That players will decide they've done the gym work like everyone else, but they still need more. They still need something to make them stand out. We've seen in cycling, athletics, rugby and other sports where that can take you. Football isn't a special case.

I would love a couple more years playing football. I love the game and I love the people in it. But I worry for the young players starting out today, trying to get to where I got and wondering how to do it.

Sunday Indo Sport

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