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Dublin: 7°C Sunday 29 November 2020

'Me and Kevin Kilbane have been in Coppers more times since we retired than as footballers'

Ex-Ireland international Stephen Hunt reflects on life after football.

Stephen Hunt pictured at the Now TV launch.
Stephen Hunt pictured at the Now TV launch.
Image: Matt Browne/SPORTSFILE

STEPHEN HUNT IS enjoying life after football.

After 17 years in “the bubble” that a career in the game tends to trap you in, finally, he has greater scope to focus on his work-life balance.

The 38-year-old has, among other activities, been finding himself in renowned Dublin nightclub Copper Face Jacks more regularly since retirement. 

The other week, he was there with former Ireland team-mate Kevin Kilbane, who is set to star in the latest series of ITV’s Dancing on Ice.

The show pairs celebrities such as Kilbane, Love Island star Maura Higgins and comedian and TV presenter Michael Barrymore alongside professional dance partners, as they compete against one other and attempt to impress the show’s various judges.

“You’ll use this line for sure,” Hunt tells The42. “I think it’s hilarious. I think me and Kevin Kilbane have been in Coppers more times since we retired than [as footballers]. I had the pleasure of his company last week and he had his new dance partner with him. As we all know, you can’t swing a cat in Coppers and we’re all getting too old for Coppers — at my age, especially. 

All I’ll say is I’ve never seen a dancefloor move as I did for Kevin Kilbane’s dancer last week. She’s obviously very good. So it means Kevin Kilbane is in a world of pain when it comes to his dancing.

“She’ll have her work cut out to make him look good by the looks of it. She’s that good, they’re miles apart. I’ve never seen Coppers move for anyone to dance and I saw it for the first time in my history of going out in Dublin. It was as Kev stood at the bar.

“I am getting sick of his Instagram posts already on Dancing on Ice, but it is funny with him.”

On a related note, given the hermetic lifestyle they’re invariably obliged to live as professional footballers, some former players tend to make up for lost time when it comes to nights out once they retire — Michael Owen has admitted as much. Is it the case also with Hunt?

“I’ve never drank beer in my life and I still haven’t, but if I did have alcohol, it would be wine, gin and tonic, along them lines. So I probably would have had more gin and tonics in the last four years than I would have had while playing. I’m keeping active, I’m trying to keep fit, but the busy life I have, it’s harder to keep fit now for sure.”

And while his current life does not require the immense level of discipline of his previous one, Hunt isn’t exactly taking it easy. He is best known these days for his work as a football pundit with various outlets, but he also has a restaurant in Rosslare that he recently put up for sale, in addition to his work as a football agent.

“I’ve taken a little step back from the media, I’ve done a little bit almost to keep myself in the limelight and in terms of being out there. But more importantly, I’ve just been covering games, going to watch my players play and being on the ground if they need me.

I had a young boy [Carl Rushworth] who was playing in Halifax in January. He turned down three of the top four clubs in the country to go to Brighton and he’s now been called up for England U19s. I take great pride in my players doing well.

“So, even in the case of [the Irish player on loan at Gillingham from Southampton] Thomas O’Connor, who I tried to get on my books three years ago, and I’ve only just managed to get him on my books and work with his dad — that, for me, was a nice moment, because I really wanted to get him on my books years ago.

“So he’s now been called up for the Ireland U21 team, which is nice, when you see some reward. When young boys go play men’s football, they’re on a learning curve in terms of experiences and it’s mostly good, because you’re playing for three points.”

wigan-athletic-v-southampton-fa-youth-cup-fourth-round-dw-stadium Southampton youngster Thomas O'Connor is among the players Hunt is working with. Source: EMPICS Sport

O’Connor received his first Ireland U21 call-up last week, despite Gillingham losing 3-0 in the two games when Stephen Kenny went to watch him.

“In fairness, you have players that will tell you they had a good game every game, and you have players that will tell you if they had a bad game. Thomas O’Connor is probably one of them who wouldn’t have been entirely happy with the team performance and himself on the first day. 

“But he’s been playing well, when I’ve seen him live, in a position that is not entirely his number one position. What it does do, it gives him an extra string to his bow in terms of playing left-back and he’s learning the game there. He can play centre-half and his preferred position is probably central midfield. He’s got a load of different options. Stephen can use him and Southampton can use him going forward, because I’m sure he’s part of their plans as well.”

Consequently, with so many different commitments, it’s a wonder Hunt has time to sleep.

“I do work hard and I have built up ties the last six years in a restaurant. And the restaurant, in terms of where it was and what it’s doing now is very good, it’s in a very good place. If I get someone that gives me the right money for it, down the line, I’ll probably take it. Like with any business.” 

On his agency work, he adds: “The best thing about it is I’m not telling clubs: ‘I have Messi on my books.’ I think that will give me longevity going forward. My players are where they’re at, between myself and the player, they’ll get the best opportunities to go to a better club down the line if it’s right for the player.

I have very few people that don’t answer the phone to me. 99% of clubs will answer the phone to me and have a chat with me about football and my players. I can guarantee that from an agent’s point of view, that’s not [always] the case.

“I have a really good relationship [with clubs] and I’d back myself to have enough contacts in the game to do well in it. So I’m looking forward to growing the business

“I haven’t decided to go with a big company and use my experience as a footballer, which is more than what most companies have.

“I enjoy going to games and I enjoy seeing my players doing well. I enjoy brokering deals for clubs and on the player’s side. I have people that trust me to do that, so I enjoy that side of it as well.”

soccer-fifa-world-cup-2010-qualifying-round-group-eight-italy-v-republic-of-ireland-san-nicola Stephen Hunt won 39 caps with Ireland. Source: PA Archive/PA Images

Hunt himself had relative stability and no serious problems, when it came to agents, during his playing days, while he discusses their importance in helping footballers look out for themselves first and foremost.

“I went through two agents in 20 years [as a player]. So I obviously had a combination of people I trusted. The first agent I had, I left him after 15 years and came back to him after two. You do get a feel for somebody, if you like him, then great, if you think he’s not right for you, then you’ll leave the company.

“It’s as simple as that, I suppose, and that’s how ruthless the game is sometimes. So I think it’s my responsibility to try to help the players out. Sometimes I can’t help them. Sometimes you get players that are not wanted and they have to go down to a level where they have to play games that they wouldn’t have envisaged, but at the same time, it’s up to myself and them to try to work the way up the ladder and go from there.

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“In the company, the biggest thing is that they go and play a game somewhere, they go and be involved, because if they’re good enough, they’ll go back to the club they’re on loan from, get in and have an opportunity there. If they don’t, then they can move on again. 

I’d be disheartened to say the very least [when it comes to U23s football]. Anybody who plays six minutes of U23s should then be gone out the door to play men’s football. It’s not as easy as that. But you’ve got to think: ‘Right, I’ve got to go and play. In fairness, most of the players on my books are out there playing and progressing in terms of men’s football, so that’s pleasing.”

It has been well documented how difficult it often is for footballers adjusting to life after retirement. Hunt, though, was quite prepared when he hung up his boots after a brief stint with Coventry in 2016.

“I had my restaurant up and going. I had signed two or three players to a different agency that were always going to come back with me and sign with me. I had pre-ordered some players to be on my books is probably the best way of saying it.

“So I had guys ready to go and trusting me. And it’s about growing your stable of players in the right way, not having too many players.

“I liken my agency to a boutique. I don’t want to grow it to 100 players. I want to keep it small, keep it compact, so I know exactly what I have on my books, where they should be going and the next move for them. So that’s the biggest thing and I won’t be growing my company to a huge level, like some of them do, but I want to grow it so that the players will be able to progress and do well and give them the love.”

republic-of-ireland-v-switzerland-uefa-euro-2020-qualifiers Hunt believes Ireland international Richard Keogh was treated harshly by Derby. Source: SIPA USA/PA Images

And is being ready in advance crucial to a successful post-playing career?

“Yeah, I think it’s key. I also heard Kenny Dalglish talking about it. He said: ‘You need three years before you finish playing to plan what you do after football.’ 

“I didn’t think it was going to be easy, it’s totally different to what you’re used to and how it is, and you’re totally in a bubble. And so you should be. It pays that well that you can’t really be thinking of anything else.

But selfishly, sometimes you do think: ‘I’m going to do this, this and this to be ready for it,’ which in the end sacrifices your performance, no doubt about it. But football clubs are quick to get rid of you when they don’t want you. So you’ve got to be ruthless for yourself as well to progress.

“Look at Richard Keogh, for example. He’s given his life to Derby and he’s made a mistake, there’s no doubt about that, there’s no hiding from it, but they were quick to get rid of him. So that’s a great example of how football clubs are so ruthless and how they are. There’s no reason why players can’t be ruthless as well, in terms of how they go about their job, training very hard every day and taking it seriously, but then knowing the right time to say: ‘Well, actually, I’ve given you my services, now it’s time to move on.’”

Stephen Hunt was speaking to publicise the arrival of Sports Extra on NOW TV.

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About the author:

Paul Fennessy

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