11 September 2008


What is Stephen Hunt and where did it come from?

The answers to the latter question are, alas, cloaked in a fog of mystery, perhaps owing to a blunt force trauma to the head of history, incurred somehow. Such obfuscation has given rise to several myths purporting to explain Hunt's essence.

One has the young Stephen playing around the perimeter of Portlaoise Prison and discovering a piece of Semtex which he mistook for plasticine. He would carry it around with him wherever he went, and one day, as a curious child might, he put some in his mouth and swallowed it. (This tale is highly dubious, but it might explain his red card in the Czech Republic last year.)

Another says that he was discovered by a Crystal Palace scout while competing at Waterford Greyhound Track. It was not his speed or stride which impressed the scout so much as the ferocity with which he tore into the mechanical hare after the race. Some say he was the mechanical hare.

The most plausible explanation for Hunt is that he was, in fact, a budding professional cyclist from Colombia who became enchanted with Irish football, especially with the national team's left-flank combination of Ian Harte and Kevin Kilbane. So he forsook his destiny of polka-dot jerseys for a life of running around a lot on football pitches in England.

Whatever about his provenance, we know what Stephen Hunt is - energy. Rumour has it that in one drugs test, he passed pure battery acid. Apparently, Reading's decline last season was in part due to his being chased by several nefarious laboratories, all desperate to harvest his bone marrow for use by some of their more illustrious clients before the Olympics.

What he seems not to be is a footballer. The firing-up of the Large Hadron Collider appears to have had an unintended consequence on the left wing of a football pitch in Podgorica last night - the ball kept disappearing whenever it reached Hunt. His method when in possession - assuming he has managed to bring the ball under his control in the first place - is to run, and see what happens. It sometimes leaves him inside the penalty area, as if he's passed through a wormhole. Sometimes he is in a position to pass to a team-mate, often making the latter undergo hideous contortions in order to control it. Most frequently, there's a tangle of legs resulting in the ball ending up at the feet of an opponent.

This same uneducated instinctiveness is what makes him invaluable to Trapattoni's Ireland. He must be one of the most annoying, not to say frightening, players to face. Even if your not worried about the possibility of your ankle feeling the force of his studs (something which happens with alarming regularity, including to a Georgian player in the first minute of Saturday's game), you must contend with Hunt buzzing around you like a wasp on a bun. And he does it forever. If the match was still on right now (this is applicable whenever you're reading this) he would still be there, losing possession before hounding his opponent back, not allowing him a second's clear thought.

And this appears to be a microcosm of the national team's new era. One yearned to see Juan Rom...I mean Andy Reid, almost the inverse Stephen Hunt; someone who won't give the ball away easily, and would provide some incision going forward (this would have been especially welcome given another frustratingly misfiring game by Aiden McGeady). It would certainly have taken the edge off Robbie Keane's dose of the strops which afflict him every time he plays for Ireland, the poor chap.

What Reid lacks, despite his insistence to the contrary, is Hunt's ability and willingness to run and snap at ankles. Given that Trapattoni's priority is to keep things ticking over defensively rather than build around flair, his apparent antipathy towards Reid is understandable. One could even say it has been vindicated, partially at least, by the four points garnered so far, one of which was earned by blunting Montenegro's supposedly fierce attack. But for all that Hunt's tenacity benefits the team, the thought of Reid kicking his heels on the bench is a painful one. It's the thought of talent unfulfilled, of the kind of wizardry so rare in an Irish player going to waste. It appears Trapattoni would rather see the immediate, kinetic energy of Hunt and is happy for Reid's to remain potential.

Flickr photo by g r e e n g a g e.


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