“I’ve had better weeks”. Those were the opening words of Noel Hunt when I met him last Wednesday morning. The Dundee United striker is a player who has brought excitement, intrigue and anticipation to Tannadice Park since he moved there from Dunfermline Athletic a little over two years ago.
From an early age, when he was a pupil at Mount Sion School, Noel has had a suitably elemental and sustained ferocity to succeed in the world of professional football, and no matter how hard the competition may be there is never a hiding place for him.
Football for him is sport as onslaught. During the course of a match Noel is always loitering with intent. One could never accuse him of loitering with intent to loiter a bit more! He gives all he has every time he pulls the tangerine and black shirt over his head.
In an age when mega-rich footballers make the news for all of the wrong reasons, with the distorting pressures of strong drink and weakened wallets and sometimes somewhat dodgy pleasures, it is always a treat to meet a player who is the very model of a very modern footballer for all the right reasons. Footballers can from time to time take the beautiful game to the gutter. Oscar Wilde looking at stars comes to mind, if you get my drift. It is only right that a footballer should declare his genius, but only on the field of play. That is the path that Noel Hunt has taken.
The previous week was not one that Noel will want to remember. On the Thursday he received the news that his grandmother had died in Clonea Power. On Sunday he lined out for Dundee United against Rangers in the CIS Cup Final. He scored the opening goal of that game and it looked odds on that the trophy was heading to Tannadice as Dundee United were leading 2-1 with just minutes remaining. But a late equaliser followed by a heartbreaking 3-2 defeat in a penalty shoot-out put paid to that dream.
On the morning that I met him his car had packed up and that meant he faced a difficult task of reporting back for training the next morning. Was it any wonder that he admitted that he’d “had better weeks”?!
Cup final heartache
Noel is quite simply a really nice guy and after arranging to meet him at 10.30am he duly arrived bang on time. He looked fit and trim dressed in a grey tracksuit and sporting a trendy goatie beard.
“Yea, last week was not a very good one for me. Stephen rang me to tell me our grandmother had died. I did not know what to do but he told me to go out and play my heart out for the club in the cup final and then come home for the funeral on Monday. My father said the same.
“I really thought we had the cup won but a mistake by one of our defenders handed them [Rangers] their equaliser and they went on to win the cup. I had come off with an ankle injury so I did not have the opportunity to take a penalty.
“On my way back from the game I met supporters of Rangers and even they agreed that we were the best team on the day. Sometimes in this game you do not get what you deserve. It was a game we really wanted to win and we will have to try and bounce back immediately because we still have a chance of qualifying for Europe, starting this week with a game against Motherwell.
“The manager [Craig Levein] is pretty good at lifting us following a defeat and hopefully he will be able to do that again this week”. When quizzed about his Scottish ‘gaffer’, Noel had a lot of praise for the former Leicester City boss.
“He has been very good to me since he arrived at the club. He always finds a place for me in the team. Sometimes I have to play out on the right but as long as I get a first team place I am happy. His confidence in me has helped my game greatly and that is the reason why I have scored so many goals this season.
“I think this season the so-called weaker sides have done well against the big two of Celtic and Rangers. The week before the League Cup final we held Celtic at Celtic Park and that result put us in good heart for the trip to Hampden Park. I believe the club will make Europe this season and in some sort of way that will make up for what happened at Hampden”.
Caps and transfer?
During the January transfer window Noel was linked with quite a number of clubs in England. Blackpool did make a concrete offer but their bid was described as “laughable” by Craig Levein and flatly turned down by Dundee United.
Leicester City and Hull City were also strongly linked with the ex-Johnville, Shamrock Rovers, Waterford United (loan) and Dunfermline goal poacher – who once scored six in a Waterford Premier League game – but alas nothing happened. There is a strong likelihood that something will happen on that front during the summer months. Noel is just keeping his head down and is willing to wait and see what transpires.
“All I can do is try and keep playing as well as I can and then see what happens. I am very happy at Dundee United but this game is full of surprises. I know that clubs from England were interested in signing me but for now all I am thinking about is helping Dundee United finish as high as possible in the league.
“We have a very busy period between now and the end of the season. The SPL is a very tough league, with the games coming thick and fast. Transfer talk I leave to other people”.
With 16 goals to his credit to date this term surely the time has come for the new regime at the helm of the Republic of Ireland to note the name of Noel Hunt? This point gets him aroused big time, and rightly so.
“Sometimes I think that playing in Scotland has not helped me get noticed. I will admit that I get frustrated at times when players from the Championship and lower leagues get selected and I am overlooked. I have been playing without a break now for the best part of 18 months and I have been scoring goals on a regular basis. Thankfully I have not been injured all that much despite the hectic programme of games in Scotland.
“Some people think that the Championship and even League One is stronger than the SPL and that is an unfair. You look at players who have not been scoring for their clubs, and in some cases not even been picked for their clubs, yet they get the nod for Ireland.
“Who knows the new manager and his assistants may spread their net wider and that should help my case. I would love to play for Ireland at full international level”, he stressed as he went off with his two friends, Paddy and Paul Carey of Southend United, to try and get someone to fix his “banjaxed” car.
Yes indeed we will all keep an ear to the ground to see if Mr Trapattoni, Liam Brady and Co will call up Stephen’s younger brother for the games during the close season. The Italian will be aware that his newly-adopted football country is unusually thin on the ground when it comes to goalscorers.
The new men who the FAI believe will bring back the glory years must scour every possible avenue, from the Atlantic coast of Ireland to the Thames estuary, from Scapa Flow to Sidmouth. Dundee may not be the most glamorous of places in Scotland but it does have a player who is striking now while his iron is hot.
Already one of the contenders for the Scottish PFA Player of the Year Award, if Noel can score 20-plus goals this season – and he is convinced that he can do just that – there is a possibility that he could finish up as the SPL’s leading goalscorer. A feat that would surely warrant an Irish call-up.
Over to you Mr Trappotoni – and “Chippy”.