Monday 20 November 2017

Stephen Hunt: Worry robbed me of the joy of playing with brother Noel

Playing alongside his brother Noel has been a source of much joy for Stephen Hunt

Stephen Hunt, left, and Noel Hunt
Stephen Hunt, left, and Noel Hunt
Stephen Hunt

Stephen Hunt

There is a picture from earlier this season when Ipswich played Charlton at the Valley. In the last minute of injury time, my brother Noel scored the only goal of the game. Ipswich had claimed three points and in the picture I'm running towards Noel as he slides in celebration in front of the dugout. Noel is looking towards me and I am ecstatic or that is what the picture suggests. It tells a story but it doesn't tell the whole story of playing with my brother. In one way, no picture could capture the ecstasy I felt at that moment but it hasn't always been that way.

There is another picture that I'm not so proud of. It is a posed photo taken during an Ireland get-together. It was of Damien Duff, Noel and myself. I am resting my arm on Duffer's shoulder in that forced casual way that is expected in those pictures. But I'm not showing Noel any affection, in fact I'm trying to keep my distance.

I went through a stage in my career when I felt I worried more about Noel than I did about myself. That wouldn't be strictly true. I worried about my brother but I also worried that I might be worrying too much about him.

Then I started trying to act like he was no different than anyone else. He was just another team-mate, an ally but nothing special. I ended up keeping my distance from him in a picture with Damien Duff in case it looked like I was too pally with my brother and then people would think I wouldn't be clear-headed on the football field.

Would the other players think I passed to him rather than them? Would they feel excluded? All this cluttered up my head and sometimes robbed me of the simple joy of playing with my brother, something we'd talked about since we were boys.

In those days, I'd make Noel go in goal, exercising my rights as an older brother to push him around. He had a great leap, something that stood to him when he liberated himself from his brother's demands.

I remember when he first trained with us at Reading. I was apprehensive because he'd had four stitches in his head. Straight away there's a clash of heads and there's blood pumping from Noel's. "Why don't you go in?" I said, but he wanted to stay out and impress. He's straight up and heads the next ball and the blood is still dripping down his face. It wasn't a surprise Steve Coppell signed him.

There were moments when I was able to forget all the worries and enjoy it. Noel made his debut for Ireland in 2008 against Poland and I came on a minute later. There was no better feeling than to be in an Ireland team with your brother. I'd like to say it was a dream come true but it surpassed that. I don't think either of us could have imagined it, even in our dreams.

We were both on the field when Noel scored in Bari, although Robbie Keane was credited officially with that goal. The Hunt family probably saw it differently, I know Noel did.

When we were both at Reading, I probably didn't enjoy playing with him as much as I should. By the time Noel arrived, I felt I should move on and that probably prevented me from enjoying it.

My anxiety also got in the way. If I wasn't worrying about favouritism I was trying to look out for him when it's clear to anyone who knows Noel that he can look after himself.

These days it's different. There are moments when my head clears and I realise what I have to do. When Noel is playing and I'm on the bench I find myself thinking, 'Fuck it, he can look after himself!'

When I left Reading, my feelings became more straightforward. I desperately wanted him to do well and over the passage of time I realised how badly I wanted to play alongside him again.

When he got the chance to come to Ipswich, some of the old anxiety reappeared. I didn't worry anymore about favouritism but I wanted him to do well, I wanted us to play together.

Now I realise that it is more subtle than that. Football is a team game but it requires individual ruthlessness. There are no friends on the field and only the deluded believe in any band of brothers bullshit. We do what's best for the team and I can see that clearly now. I'm a professional footballer and that is how professional footballers think.

When Noel scored at Charlton, he was on a contract until the end of the month. Once again, I found myself worrying more about him than about myself. Football is a team game but, as a friend of mine says, it's based on enlightened self-interest. I'm no use to my team if I'm worrying more about a team-mate than my own form. Maybe Ronaldo could be effective while thinking about others but even Ronaldo seems to have figured out not to take the chance.

But there are moments when I feel differently. When your brother runs towards you having scored the winner in a massive game for the team you both play for, do you want me to react professionally?

I celebrated as I would celebrate when any team-mate had scored a goal that important but that wasn't the whole story. How could it be? There is no team-mate who has shared as much with me as my brother has. So there was a look of ecstasy on my face, but the feelings I had were greater than that, they were feelings that anyone who has ever loved their brother understands.

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