He’s a man without a club but Stephen Hunt, who turned 32 this week, is still as determined as ever. With options on the table, including moving to Europe, Hunt is getting his head down and working hard on his fitness. Back home in Ireland, he spoke to Padraig Byrne of the excellent back-post.com.
It was another glorious morning at Rosslare Strand in County Wexford. While most of the residents were busy power walking, heading for the golf course or simply relaxing in the sun two figures could be made out frantically running up and down the local football team’s pitch. The figures were those of former Wolves and Reading winger Stephen Hunt and his personal trainer Richard Kennedy. As they run drills up and down the pitch, a number of youngsters kick a football around on an astro-turf pitch pretending to be Steven Gerrard and Ryan Giggs, seemingly unaware that a few feet away a man who has played against these big names is getting set for another big season.
Having been released by Wolves towards the end of June following their disastrous slide into the third tier of English football, Stephen has been weighing up his options and spending some time with his wife Joanne and daughter Louella at their home in the south eastern sun-trap of Rosslare. However as most English football teams are settling into a busy pre-season, Stephen has yet to decide where his future lies and has set about undertaking a grueling pre-season regime of his own.
In order to ensure he is in top shape when he eventually decides upon a team for next season, Stephen has enlisted the help of an old friend in Richard Kennedy who owns a runs his own business called ‘Fitness Freak’.
‘I’m not one of those people who can train on their own,’ Stephen said. ‘If I was training on my own I’d only be at about 60%. I need someone like Richie to push me and he knows my body well and knows exactly how much I can take. He would’ve played football with me for Crystal Palace and Brentford years ago before he came back and became a fitness instructor. He’s from Rathgormack in Waterford, the same as myself, so we get on quite well.’
The pair do seem to have an understanding and, even in the heat, Richard makes sure to squeeze every last drop from Hunt to ensure he is ready for another campaign. ‘Basically what we’re doing is a mini pre-season,’ said Richard. ‘Obviously most clubs in England are back in pre-season now so we’re trying to make sure that Stephen keeps up and keeps in shape. We’re mainly focusing on endurance and gym work. Stephen had a hip operation around 8 months ago so a lot of our work surrounds his mobility too.’
Following a couple of weeks off, Hunt has found it quite hard to get back into the swing of things, but after a few sessions, and upon watching the 31 year old today, he seems as fit as ever. ‘The first session we did was horrendous!’ he said. ‘You should have seen me afterwards. If you had have come down here then I wouldn’t have even been able to talk to you! The fitness levels had decreased a bit while I was off. I had gotten into the habit of eating bars of chocolate and drinking Coke and things like that. You’d be surprised how much difference that makes. In my few weeks off I was only doing light work, going for the odd jog and the odd game of golf. My golf got a lot better, but my fitness got worse! I’m starting to get back up to speed now though and I still liaise with Wolves to see what level they’re at in their training so I can be one step ahead in my own.’
Watching Stephen as he undertakes a series of sprints and stretches and pulling a sled with over 65 kilos of weight on it half the length of the pitch, ‘starting to get up to speed’ seems like an understatement. However it is necessary for Hunt to put in the extra work if he is to be ready when the all important call finally comes for him to join up with a new team for the season.
According to Hunt, there has been no shortage of interest in his services either. Despite having had a number of injury worries in his three year spell at Wolves, Hunt was one of the few positives for them when he returned late from a spell on the sidelines with injury last season and he’s hoping to build upon these performances and put his injury worries behind him when he signs for a new club in the coming weeks.
‘My agent has been in talks with two or three English clubs,’ said Hunt.
‘I’ve turned down a few offers already because I’m holding out for one specific club. I could go abroad either. I’ve turned down offers from France and Germany too.
I have one specific team that I’d like to join and if they don’t come in for me over the next couple of weeks, I’ll have to sit down and look at my options.’
When asked whether the mystery club in question is a Premiership or Championship club, Hunt flashed his trademark cheeky grin and replied ‘no comment’. However judging by his reaction and the fact that he has already turned down a number of offers, it would seem that Stephen is determined to have that last shot at the big time of the Premiership. Perhaps the most likely scenario is that the Waterford man could go full circle and return to where it all began for him as a trainee – Crystal Palace. Manager Ian Holloway may just be keen to take advantage of Hunt’s Premier League experience and go some way towards filling the gap left out wide by winger Wilfred Zaha who has left the club for Manchester United. However another possible destination may be fellow newly-promoted club Hull City, where Steve Bruce has already built quite an Irish contingent.
Another player who may be on his way out of Wolves is long time teammate, and close friend of Hunt’s, Kevin Doyle. As well as being married to Doyle’s cousin, Joanne, Hunt has played with him for Wolves and Reading as well as internationally and Stephen refuses to rule out playing in the same team as the Wexford man again. ‘Stranger things have happened,’ he laughed. ‘You wouldn’t know. It would be funny if he signed for Hull, because then I would’ve played for all the teams that he’s played for. I was talking to Kevin a couple of weeks ago. He’s in pre-season with Wolves now. I know he’s fairly settled at Wolves and he’s happy with his house and everything there, but I think it’s more than likely that he will leave this summer. Where he’ll go I couldn’t say, but I do think he’ll leave.’
Whatever Hunt’s next move may be, it will be an important one for his career. At 31, it’s not too likely that he’ll have many more moves left in him and he’s also hoping that he can produce the kind of form that will bring him back into the thoughts of Ireland manager Giovanni Trapattoni.
‘With Ireland it’s all down to form,’ he said. ‘I’ll have to produce a sustained period of form to force my way back in. I wasn’t picked for Ireland towards the end there and with my injury problems and everything, that’s probably understandable. I felt I played well towards the end of the season and maybe a call up would have been justified, but I completely understand why it didn’t happen. If I can have a consistent period of form with a new club next season though, the manager is fairly loyal, so I hope I can play for Ireland again. I was disappointed not to play a part at Euro 2012 so I’d love to earn my place in the team again.’
‘That’s why I do all this stuff,’ he says pointing out all the makeshift training facilities laid out on the pitch in front of him with sweat dripping from his brow. ‘All this is to give me the best possible chance to be successful in the future.’