Kirk Hunter: Legendary hardman on 'crazy times' with Crusaders and his Shankill pride
'I am a Shankill Road Protestant and proud of it. But there's a lot more to me than the stereotype image'
In his most revealing interview, Crusaders legend Kirk Hunter on his hardman reputation, how his critics don't know him at all, the painful legacy of football and flute band life and memories of his heyday.
Kirk Hunter as a role model. Who would have thought it? Yet here he is at 54, looking, deceptively, in decent shape, and, after a deal of persuasion, prepared to open up about the real him.
And, in doing so, he challenges the many myths and perceptions of him as the most legendary Irish League hardman and hell raiser of the last three decades.
Feared and celebrated in equal measure, depending on your club allegiance, he was, then and now, instantly recognised as the powerfully built and heavily tattooed Shankill Road bandsman whose reputation, on and off the pitch, tended to precede him, whose 6ft 3in frame marked him out for attention, not always welcome, and while he will tell you he never went looking for trouble, trouble had a tendency to find him.
That he was and is, but Kirk is indeed full of surprises. Who knew he lived his early life in the nationalist Moyard?
Kirk is not a character you can water down, nor would he want you to.
But the deeper you probe and the more he opens up, the clearer it becomes that nor is he as one-dimensional as he is perceived or portrayed.
Firstly, he reveals, he has not touched a drop of alcohol in 10 months.
Back in the day, it wouldn't have been unknown for him to enjoy a sup the night before a match, as well as after.
He has health issues, as he later relates, on painkillers for the last 15 years to combat arthritis in his ankles and elbows, the first he puts down to football and the second to years of battering the big drum for Shankill Protestant Boys, a case study for the British Medical Journal if ever there was one. But that's not the reason he has sworn off the booze.
"I'm always telling my kids to steer clear of the drink and not to be staying out late," he explains. "You've got to practice what you preach.
"Besides, I got to the stage where I was going into the same bars on the Road, seeing the same people sitting in the same place, talking about the same old stuff. I got fed up with it all."
Does he feel any better for it? "Not really... and I don't have any more money," he laughs.
But Kirk is also annoyed and it was never a good idea to irk Kirk.
We are chatting in the comfortable, tastefully furnished living room of his top floor flat at the top of the Shankill with its panoramic views down the Road, across to the Crumlin Road and over to the shipyard cranes. It's his home territory and he loves it.
An open copy of the Irish News from early January is spread out, not the reading material you'd normally expect to find in these parts. Kirk is reading from an article referring back to his infamous 1980s assault on the brilliant Joey Cunningham, then an emerging talent at Newry. It began in the tunnel and ended with Joey in hospital with a broken jaw, and Kirk in court being handed a suspended sentence.
Whatever passed between them, it remains as inexcusable now as it was then. Kirk does not seek to excuse himself nor to minimise any of the excesses that variously landed him in bother with referees and even higher authority.
He is annoyed, he says, because his friend and former Crusaders team-mate, Martin Murray, the stylish midfielder from Dublin, has been brought into it.
A past quote from Martin to the effect that Kirk's body art "left you in no doubt as to his political affiliation" leads on to him being labelled a pantomime villain.
"I'm not annoyed for me. They can call me what they like," he shrugs. "I'm thick skinned enough and if people choose to view me as a stereotype without bothering to look beyond the image they have, that reflects more on them than me. I am annoyed for Martin that his comment was used in the context it was and for the purpose it was used.
"That remark was actually a standing joke between us for many years. I remember the night Martin arrived at Crusaders and Roy Walker, our manager, again in jest, introduced me to Martin as his minder. He took one look at my band tattoos and laughed. When people down south asked him what it was like for a Dubliner playing up here at that time, he'd kid them, 'You should see who I've got looking after me'.
"We laughed about that stuff. There was never any animosity in our dressing room. All the Dubliners we had in our team became mates and still are.
"I remember once flying in a private plane to Cork with Roddy Collins to see his brother Steve fight Chris Eubank. I'm sure I stuck out like a sore thumb but I wasn't worried. I knew Roddy and his pals were looking after me.
"The incident with Joey Cunningham happened and I can't undo it. It was 30 years ago, the law ran its course so why bring it up again now and pillory me all over again? Who benefits?
"I'm being branded a pantomime villain based on my tattoos, my looks, my physique and my supposed political allegiances. I left school without any qualifications but I'm educated enough never to form opinions about people, based on assumptions.
"I will tell you this. I am a Shankill Road Protestant and proud of it. I have paraded with the Shankill Protestant Boys band, man and boy, and I'm proud of that. But there's a lot more to me if anyone would bother to find out.
"I never had any involvement in the Troubles and I was never in a paramilitary organisation. That wasn't easy in the time and place I grew up in but I made my choice.
"I have Catholic friends I speak with regularly on the phone and meet socially. A couple of times a year I go out with a group of ex-players from different backgrounds and different beliefs and we're all comfortable in each other's company.
"We are what we are and we do what we do with respect for one another's traditions. My life is a better place for the friends I have made through football and I treasure that."
Kirk must have made enemies, too, the way he played but, for his part, there are no lasting grudges nor bad feelings towards any opponent, rival manager or referee.
It is notable that in the two hours we spoke, he did not utter an uncharitable word about anyone. Quite the opposite. And in the days that followed, he would text or phone, fearing he may have left someone out as he didn't want the article to be all about him.
He talked in glowing terms of his team-mates in those great two title-winning Crusaders sides of '95 and '97. Classy defender Glenn Dunlop, now a Minister of the church and who back in the day would have tried to enlighten Kirk on the error of his ways, was, he says, "head and shoulders above anyone I ever played with or against".
That is some tribute when you look back at the quality in those Crusaders sides... Sid Burrows, Aaron Callaghan, Glen Hunter (no relation), Martin Murray, Rob Lawlor, Trevor McMullan and current boss Stephen Baxter, "the best thing Crusaders did was give him his new contract". Kirk rattles off the names nostalgically and then the opposing players he most admired... the Glentoran trinity of Jim Cleary, Billy Caskey and Raymond 'Nuts' Morrison.
He insists he never had a problem with any of his managers... Tommy Jackson, who discovered him, Roy Walker, who made him a league title winner, the late Jackie Hutton and, for a time, big Roy McDonald as caretaker. He always liked Ronnie McFall and is glad to see him back in football with Glentoran.
And he is especially fond of a man called Fraser Evans, an assistant coach with Crusaders Reserves. "He was always good to me and would be my best friend in football," he says.
He even name checks his two favourite referees of his era, Alan Snoddy and Leslie Irvine, declaring: "I wasn't sent off as many times as people might think... about seven or eight."
As a player, as well as a person, there was always more to Kirk than met the eye. To pigeon hole him as a midfield enforcer is doing a disservice to someone who won every trophy going in the Irish League, bar the Irish Cup.
He could play a bit as those two league titles prove and only last week, in a Q&A session, his friend and Crusaders-supporting boxing idol Carl Frampton named Kirk as his all-time favourite Crues player.
"I was really chuffed about that because Carl is someone I greatly admire for what he has achieved," he responds.
The mutual admiration is not surprising, given the parallels in their paths to the top of their respective games; two lads from limited opportunity working class areas whose potential stood out enough for them to be spotted and given the chances they seized.
Born in 1963 in the pre-Troubles Old Lodge, Kirk later moved with his family to Moyard, then a mixed estate, before settling in loyalist Highfield as the flames of strife caught hold. One of a family of four brothers and a sister, he went to Blackwater Primary and on to Cairnmartin where former Linfield and Glentoran goalgrabber Billy Totten was a class mate and Norman Whiteside a year below.
He would have gone to occasional Linfield matches but didn't count himself a true Blueman, unlike his dyed in the wool dad.
And that presented problems when Glentoran came calling. "My dad threatened to throw me out if I signed for Glentoran. I thought he was joking and went ahead and so did he. I ended up living with my sister for a few weeks until I decided I wanted back into the house. I turned up on the doorstep with my Glentoran contract. My dad tore it up and welcomed me back."
By chance, Tommy Jackson spotted his future Crues legend playing summer football in Woodvale Park, put him straight into the first team and within weeks, he was a Gold Cup winner, scoring a hat-trick against the Glens in the semi-final and beating Linfield in the final.
It was an introduction that got him noticed in more ways than one. His welcome to the Irish League soon after was a bruising, studs up challenge by another hardman, Roy McCreadie.
"Every team had one," he reflects. "But you learn. I resolved that it wasn't going to happen again and that I was going to look after myself and my team-mates.
"I never went out to settle a score or get myself sent off. I preferred my football to do the talking but certain things had to be done in certain matches and I take no pride in some of the crazy stuff that went on.
"In fact, my greatest regret is a sending off in the last game one season against Ards. If we'd won we were champions again but we only drew and handed the title to Linfield.
"It was a pleasure and privilege to play for Crusaders but, really, with the players we had we should have won more. For a club like ours to be even challenging was remarkable and to win two titles incredible. We were up against very good Linfield and Glentoran teams and other sides capable of taking points off one another. For us to emerge above that speaks volumes for the club, the players and Roy Walker."
It all ended after 11 years of attrition, resulting in those arthritic ankles, going out on a high note with Seaview packed for a testimonial against Rangers.
"Definitely a highlight," he reflects. "They brought Ally McCoist, Ian Durrant, Ferguson and Reno Gattuso. They were 5-0 up at half-time but I got to play for them in the second half - what a memory to be able to say I played on a winning Rangers team, 6-1 it ended. We had some night in the social club afterwards."
Today, Kirk lives cleanly and quietly with partner Laurie, taking fatherly pride and a keen interest in his grown-up family from a previous relationship, daughter Georgia (22) and sons Cameron (17) and Kirk jnr (33). Neither lad showed interest in following dad into the Irish League ("there was no pressure on them") but Kirk has high hopes for a young nephew at Albert Foundry, Brodie Hunter, who, he says, "has the biggest heart in the world".
The biggest compliment, outside the family circle, he pays to his former Crues boss Roy Walker: "A wonderful man. He just knew how to talk to me to get the best out of me. And, thankfully, I knew how to listen to him."
Twenty years or more had passed since we last talked yet it felt like we were picking up a conversation from the day before.
It would be a stretch to say Kirk has mellowed over time but he is certainly a more rounded, thought provoking individual than the reckless young midfield marauder of three decades ago. You could call him many things, then and now, but stereotype would not be one of them.