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'After months of being told how s**t you are, you start to question yourself'

Former Ireland international Noel Hunt on the challenges of dealing with fans’ abuse.

Noel Hunt pictured playing for Ireland in 2009.
Noel Hunt pictured playing for Ireland in 2009.
Image: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

NOT MANY PEOPLE can relate to what it’s like to be a professional footballer.

When it goes well, it can be a richly rewarding experience (literally and figuratively).

However, when a player is under-performing, it’s hard to think of many comparable professions where the scrutiny and criticism is so intense.

Most footballers experience at least one bad patch in their career and consequently have to contend with resulting abuse from fans.

Noel Hunt was one such example. The former Ireland international had a largely successful career in the game, gradually working his way up from stints in the League of Ireland with Waterford and Shamrock Rovers, to the heights of the Premier League with Reading.

After leaving Madejski Stadium following five invariably positive seasons, the Waterford native had a bad experience at Leeds in the Championship during the 2013-14 campaign. In 22 appearances, the striker didn’t score a single goal.

The likes of Twitter and Facebook were slightly more novel in that era, and Hunt says he was taken aback by the scale of the abuse he received, having got on well with the supporters at all his previous clubs.

“I wasn’t playing well,” he tells The42. “I knew I wasn’t. The harder I tried, the worse I got. It does happen, and I’ve seen it.

“I wasn’t the first and I won’t be the last that it happens to. The club was in a particularly hard time in terms of transition with the owner and the changes of manager. So maybe I was a scapegoat to a certain degree in terms of fans channeling their anger towards me.

“It didn’t help that I was mentioned by the chairman falsely about wages and whatnot that I was supposed to be on. 

“But it’s a serious issue. No matter how strong you are, you can be broke down. I thought I was one of the strongest characters I knew. But after two to four months of being told about how bad you are, how shit you are, you start to question yourself, your ability. You try not to, but you do. It changes your perception of people.

99 times out of 100, there’s not a chance they’ll say it to you face to face. It happens, but I just don’t agree with it at all. I never take it personally. Anything that’s said now I immediately brush off straight away, I don’t care.”

Hunt is a sporadic user of social media these day. He is currently assistant coach with League Two side Swindon Town, and mainly uses the likes of Facebook and Instagram to keep in touch with friends and family back home in Ireland.

While he is well able to ignore any abuse he receives these days, it wasn’t so easy to do so during that difficult time at Elland Road.

“I wasn’t used to it at Leeds. I never had it at Reading. I loved my time at Reading, and I’m pretty sure they loved me. I gave everything I could all the time, and in truth I didn’t want to leave the football club. But circumstances change and managers change and owners change — they have their own ideas of where their club should be and what they should be doing.

“When it started happening at Leeds, it was a massive shock. It hinders you. It hurts you. You almost go into a state of depression. You’re not as confident in the public eye. You’re not as outgoing. You do look at people differently. You are more wary. You are probably a bit more nervous. Because it has a massive mental effect on people. And it did on me.

“I’m not going to lie. I worked so hard to build up what I had and it was being knocked down easily by these people. It’s easy to say you can’t let them beat you, but when you’ve got 2-4,000 [messages of abuse], it does that to you.”

soccer-sky-bet-football-league-championship-leeds-united-v-queens-park-rangers-elland-road Noel Hunt pictured during his ill-fated Leeds stint. Source: EMPICS Sport

After just over a season there, Hunt left Leeds. He signed with Ipswich, initially on loan, and then permanently, after their Championship rivals agreed to terminate his contract.

“When I moved to Ipswich, it was such a release. The boys knew what I’d been through. My older brother [Stephen] was there. From the first game, I couldn’t hit a barn door for Leeds — no matter how hard I tried.

“But scoring in my first game for Ipswich, it was such an emotional moment. I remember being so emotional on the pitch, I was in tears. And some of the boys were as well — they knew what it meant to me.

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“When the captain Luke Chambers gave the [post-match] interview, he understood the hurt that I’d gone through. That one 10 minutes of football, that I was so appreciative of Mick McCarthy giving me, changed it all back around again. It changed my life again. I fell back in love with the game. I fell back in love with fans and football, back in love with the clubs.”

He continues: [The abuse] definitely scarred me. I still have never been the same person in terms of dealing with fans. But it definitely helped me. The future clubs I was at, the likes of Ipswich, Southend, the fans were amazing to me, the players were great. 

“[The messages] do go away. The majority of them are plain and simple. ‘You’re this.’ ‘You’re that.’ 

“I get freedom of speech, but there’s only so far it can go. I think we build a rod for our own backs with this. There are so many rules — you can’t say this or that, if you go behind a keyboard, you can do all these things, easily.

“I think it’s just wrong. Sometimes, you’ve got to take away from the money you’re making to what’s correct, what’s morally right. There’s no money that’s going to put a value on somebody’s life, because they’ve taken it over online abuse. There’s no money from Twitter or Instagram or all these platforms and the abuse they get to justify one life being lost. It’s just embarrassing. I’ve not seen much done in the last two years. I haven’t seen any difference in Instagram, Twitter. I don’t see any changes of laws. Nothing’s really changed. I feel that, as long as nothing is done, nothing will change.” 

Hunt works with young players at Swindon now who may well find themselves in a similar situation at some point in their careers. What advice would he give them?

“It depends on what state the boy is in, depends what kind of character he is. If it affected him on a serious level where he’s distressed and down, he’s thinking bad thoughts, then you’ve got to get professionals involved. You’ve got to get him as much help as you possibly can. 

If he’s just a little bit saddened by it and you can manage it, and help him through it and get him away from it, but the depths of these things that people think, to be in that state of mind, where you want to end your own life, it must be a horrible dark, lonely place, a place I pray to God I’ll never reach — or friends or family or anyone in the world. It’s just such a sad lonely place, and people drive people to these places — there’s so much blood on people’s hands by not even touching a gun, but by touching keys on a board. 

“I can’t understand for the life of me how you can set up an account without proper identification, whether it be an ID card, a driver’s licence or birth cert. You wouldn’t be allowed anywhere in the world without this proper documentation, so why should you be able to go anywhere in the network world and say and do reckless things? It’s beyond me how easy it is for people to do stuff.”

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About the author:

Paul Fennessy

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