Sport Soccer

Monday 19 March 2018

The perceived joker of the pack with a serious ace up his sleeve

Stephen Hunt's enthusiasm and dedication to the game is no laughing matter

Stephen Hunt: ‘Whatever happens, happens and you have obstacles to get over. Everyone has obstacles to get over and these were mine.’
Stephen Hunt: ‘Whatever happens, happens and you have obstacles to get over. Everyone has obstacles to get over and these were mine.’

Dion Fanning

Stephen Hunt sometimes wonders if people know he's a serious man. They laugh when Hunty comes on the television and gives an honest answer to a question when they have become used to hearing nothing said so many different ways. Those close to him sometimes ask why it has to be like this, why a man who has "never countenanced failure" is seen as a party piece.

In one way, he doesn't mind. Stephen Hunt has spent his life chasing up a break so he isn't going to complain if people smile when he comes on TV. He knows the game and knows that headlines can help. The game is rough too and maybe the jokes provided an ironic detachment, a way of reminding him that it's a game or life's a game or simply that some things shouldn't be taken too seriously.

He has learned that in many different ways. In the autumn of 2006, Hunt and his friend Kevin Doyle were wandering around Harrods when they saw Jose Mourinho. Two weeks before, Hunt had collided with Petr Cech and fractured his skull. Mourinho said that Hunt's challenge was a disgrace and suggested he had deliberately dropped his knee into Cech's head. Mourinho was at war with Hunt and at war with Reading. Hunt knew what Mourinho said wasn't true but here they were in Harrods, the warring parties, when Mourinho walked up to Hunt, shook his hand, shook Doyle's hand and walked away.

I interviewed Hunt around that time. He came into the hotel at Reading, carrying his post he had just picked up at the club. He desultorily opened it as we chatted, flicking through brochures and he assured me he'd received no hate mail. Despite the reports, there was no need to make a fuss, the thing was dying down.

As he spoke, he took one letter from a plain brown envelope. It had been put together with some care, using letters from newspaper headlines and making vague and specific threats against Hunt, his family and the people of Ireland. He looked at me, looked back at the letter. "Better not mention that."

The game was always out to get him so as he kept going, he ran his own life parallel to the craziness, aware of the pitfalls. At least once, what he calls the "Don't trust anyone" mentality kicked in.

He was young and skinny and trusting when he left Waterford and arrived in London to play for Crystal Palace. He became friends with an older team-mate. In a freak accident, the team-mate broke Hunt's ankle in training. Hunt stayed friends with him and this team-mate "took me under his wing", a procedure which involved placing the odd bet at the bookies for Hunt. But he was an unlucky punter and his horses never won. One day that changes. Hunty has a winner and he waits for his friend to return with his winnings but when he does he looks crestfallen. He had forgotten to place the bet, he says. How unlucky can you be? There were limits to Hunt's youth and naiveté. He realised none of the bets had been placed, that his friend had been taking the money.

Don't trust anyone, he said to himself, and he retreated, not to traditional consolations for an Irish kid lost in London but to the gym, to the swimming pool. He got stronger, he got older and he was no longer naive.

"I had an opportunity to get him back in a reserve game a year later but I turned it down. I should have went through him, looking at it now. I should have at least hit him. You get tougher as you get older."

Growing up he wasn't tough, he said, but he seems to have handled tough situations well. His parents separated when he was "10 or 11" but he looks at what some people go through and thinks it wasn't too bad. "Whatever happens, happens and you have obstacles to get over. Everyone has obstacles to get over and these were mine."

Perhaps the resolve kicked in then but he's not so sure. He wasn't any more mature at 16 than he had been at 12. But he was crazy about sport, something that ran in the family. His uncle Tom has just finished a book on the Olympic Council of Ireland and wonders why his nephew hides his seriousness about football. Tom is a former Know Your Sport champion so he was always prepared to put his knowledge to good use.

His nephew has been too, even if people see him as the joker. In fact, he says, he probably had it easy growing up. He lived with his mother for a while but he didn't like the city and when he was with his dad, he got to do what he wanted. He played football, hurling and he was looked after.

"When you think about it I had it pretty cushy because my dad would go to work and I would go to the golf club. I'd spend half seven to ten o'clock at night at the golf club. I'd come home, my dad would cook me a bit of food and then I'd go to bed."

Other people had it tougher. Nobody in his family has fallen ill, he says, touching the table in front of him in a coffee shop in Ipswich but there is one thing he took from his parents' separation. "It would make me more determined to make sure my marriage is long-lasting."

He arrived at Ipswich in November and was then offered a contract until the end of the season. Last summer was spent in Rosslare after he passed on some contract offers and then found that clubs weren't prepared to offer security like they used to. Hunt wanted to wait. If he took a "bang-average" contract then he knew he could expect no more for the next few years. He'd had a couple of seasons troubled with injury but he knew how he'd looked after himself even if the clubs didn't. So as the summer went by, he went to his new home in Rosslare where his wife and young daughter have stayed and trained on his own, putting himself through a pre-season with his personal trainer Richard Kennedy.

Every morning, he'd start at 8.30. He ran on Rosslare Strand but it wasn't too bad. "I wasn't giving myself double sessions." By lunchtime, he'd be playing golf and some evenings, he might stroll over to one of the five-a-side pitches and see if anyone would give him a game.

He trained with Wexford Youths as well and while he knew what he was doing, it was also dragging on longer than he'd expected. "I know how the game rewards you if you're doing well. Now I know how the game deals with you if you're not doing so well."

He had never really forgotten. If the summer which turned into the autumn was tough, it was only a dim reminder of how things once were when he was released by Palace and traipsed around the clubs of England searching for a break. Preston, Halifax and others looked at him and liked what they saw but passed before he got his chance at Brentford.

This was his blessing but at times it looked well-disguised. He was earning £280 a week and the club said they would pick up his rent but they didn't so he was paying that too.

"I was almost living the student life. I was going home, I was resting up. I suppose I was doing the right thing. I never got sucked into going out. If I went out, it was every six weeks instead of going out every weekend. I never got out of shape. I would go down the swimming pool every night. I have my three-year old daughter and she says, 'Never give up, daddy' and that comes from me. I instilled that in her. Now when anything goes on I think never give up."

The student life rarely included drink. He never took to it. "I drink every now and again. If I do drink I'm loose. I'm just wild, not wild wild but I'm lively."

As a teenager, he didn't hang around with the "messers" so he was lucky then and when he went to England, the only thing that concerned him was succeeding. He looks back and sees the moments when he was given opportunities with perfect clarity. The day in training at Brentford when Steve Coppell walked in and said: "Hunty, you're going to win us the game tomorrow."

Hunt started the next day at Bournemouth. He scored after four minutes and performed a celebration which was a homage to Robbie Keane and Tino Asprilla. He scored again in the 67th before, high on the improbability of it all, he was sent off 12 minutes from the end for a two-footed tackle. Some of his friends thought he'd scored a hat-trick when his name came up on the Sky Sports videprinter for the third time but it was Hunty being Hunty.

He took that opportunity and a few years later, he took another. He was at Reading then, pushing the first-choice Bobby Convey for a place. "I had pushed him as hard as anyone in the team for a good year. He wasn't breaking, but slowly his performances were beginning to drop." On a Friday, Convey got injured and as Coppell left the training ground, Hunt chased up his opportunity. "Don't even think of starting anyone else tomorrow." Coppell didn't. Hunt would start his first Premier League game the next day. It was a big one too. Chelsea were visiting the Madejski.

Hunt was man-of-the-match the next day but that wasn't the story. Mourinho attacked the player, the club and the ambulance service and Hunt tried to absorb it all. It affected him but not for long. He had worked too hard to be disrupted. The truth was that he loved it when the crowd booed, it got him going. Nothing could touch him that day against Chelsea, even if he had no idea how seriously Cech was injured.

That was him and when he changes, he'll quit. His career has been accompanied by the sound of managers trying to contain his enthusiasm. "Hunty, shut up," he remembers Coppell saying one night as Hunty tried to right wrongs after Brentford had been knocked out of the LDV Vans Trophy. Even now "Hunty, that's enough" are the words he hears most regularly from a manager.

His team-mates tend to laugh at his intensity but he's serious. "People think it's funny but really when I say things it's harsh, it's the truth probably more than anything else. Sometimes the truth is to a certain degree funny because otherwise you wouldn't believe it."

The last couple of years were tough. He was relegated twice with Wolves and when he got to Ipswich, he realised how the spirit at Wolves had decayed.

He went to the European Championship but didn't play a single minute. He was upset and felt he deserved more but he would never quit international football, never give up the chance to get another minute on the pitch for Ireland.

Hunt knew what Trapattoni wanted and he tried to help others understand it too. Sometimes he'd be on the bench and he'd start to put his shinpads on. "The boys would look at me and say, 'What are you doing?' and I'd say, 'I'll be on in five minutes'."

If he had been fit, he knows Trapattoni would have turned to him ahead of the bright young things and he still craves a return with the new management. He remembers how Kevin Kilbane helped him when he was first in the squad and he'd like to be in that position, helping out but still desperate to play.

"I'd like to think there's an opportunity. I need to get into the Ipswich team and score three or four goals. Make the limelight . . . headlines. It's almost to get the buzz back of everyone talking about you again and that automatically brings attention, people go watch you and stuff like that. To be fair, the manager and the assistant and other scouts as well will be watching games."

He hopes to play for a few more years and then he doesn't know. His brain goes at a thousand miles an hour when he thinks about the future. He could live in the English midlands and coach anywhere. He could return to Rosslare and see how his new gastro pub works out or he could come back home and try hurling.

The media appeals to him too. He's done radio and TV and he likes to improve. He likes to learn and when he's on television, it's no harm if people get a laugh from you. Look at Carragher and Neville, he says. They're always laughing.

But they are serious too, you say. They are, he says, and he is too. He gives another example: when he is sitting at home watching Monday Night Football with Carragher and Neville explaining the game, he occasionally has a drill. "Sometimes I would watch them. I would pause it," he says, slowing down as he details the procedure, knowing that you, too, might think it a little eccentric. "And then I would say what I think they're going say. Then I'd play it. The missus would be sitting beside me saying, 'What the hell are you doing?' It's just the way it is."

So there are a hundred and one things but it doesn't have to be football, it doesn't have to be hurling, he can branch out.

"Only the other day I was talking about being a golf caddy. What would it be like to be a golf caddy? Should be easy, got to be strong with your player, but it all depends what player you get. There are all different avenues. Don't forget my uncle won Know Your Sport so it's probably in our bloodlines."

Irish Independent

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