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Footballers' Lives with Glenn Hunter: A burning building fell on top of me but it wasn't my time to go

 

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Blaze of glory: Glenn Hunter has been with the Fire Service since the latter stages of his Irish League career. Pic: Stephen Hamilton

Blaze of glory: Glenn Hunter has been with the Fire Service since the latter stages of his Irish League career. Pic: Stephen Hamilton

Presseye/Stephen Hamilton

Blaze of glory: Glenn Hunter has been with the Fire Service since the latter stages of his Irish League career. Pic: Stephen Hamilton

Crusaders legend Glenn Hunter reflects on doubts over his own ability, the pain of injury ending his career and the difficulties of a harrowing day job.

Q: When you were young, you went to live in Australia; why was that?

A: We moved to Perth for just under four years and I started school there. My parents wanted to try it when they were young. My dad was a builder working on bridges in the desert. From a thin man who left this country, he came back all muscle with a beard, looking like Grizzly Adams. I was about eight when we returned and I started playing football in primary school. I've never been back to Australia but it would be nice to go back. My wife has family there and they like to come here thanks to Game of Thrones.

Q: How did your football career get up and running?

A: At Killowen Primary and Hillsborough Boys as well as the Boys' Brigade and the old Lisburn United. Tommy English, Keith Halliday and Gary Gillespie went into the Irish League and I think Noel Bailie and John Easton followed the same route. We played for Distillery Athletic, which is their third team, and Roy Welsh used to watch them. Roy invited me down to the Whites and that was the start of my Irish League journey. I was maturing as a striker and getting stronger. Tommy was at Crusaders and he encouraged me to come along and give it a go. I can remember being late for my first game with the first team, although it wasn't my fault as I was getting a lift during heavy traffic. I got up to the changing room and realised I wasn't in the team. I apologised to manager Roy Walker and he said: 'that's alright but you won't do it again will you?' It was message received and I wasn't late again! You should never take anything for granted.

Q: I think you made up for that early mis-step. How did you find the challenge of making an impact there?

A: I scored 12 to 14 in the first season from about November onwards. I could have been top scorer that season. I had a few games with Distillery so I knew what the league would be like. It was a tough introduction with the Whites as a kid but in my career I went on to score about 330 goals and win three league titles, one with Linfield, two with the Crues. I lost my only Irish Cup final when Gerard McMahon scored for Glenavon in a 2-1 win over Linfield in 1992. It was a brilliant experience, despite the defeat.

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Striped for battle: Glenn in action for the Crues against boyhood favourites Linfield

Striped for battle: Glenn in action for the Crues against boyhood favourites Linfield

Striped for battle: Glenn in action for the Crues against boyhood favourites Linfield
 

Q: How was your time at Linfield?

A: I had two years there but don't think I got the chance I should have got. I was substitute quite a lot but my goalscoring record was nearly as good as the other players despite playing half the games. There's a lot of pressure at Linfield and Roy Walker came in for me again.

Q: How surprising has your football journey been?

A: I could never have believed it. You just want to play at as high a level as you can. Aged 17, I was at Cardiff City but I got homesick and it was hard to fit in. But I don't regret it, I played around seven European matches and enjoyed a great Irish League career. I could have been forgotten about, lost in the lower leagues in England. I believe things are planned for you and I didn't come home disillusioned. I just kept working word and gave my best in every game. Even when I scored the winner I looked at the whole game and was critical of myself. My wife will tell you I was a disaster some Saturday nights. The team that Roy Walker assembled was special, big Irish League names from Stephen (Baxter) to Kirk Hunter, Sid Burrows and Glen Dunlop. The late Tommy English brought me to the Crues and that changed my life. They were struggling when I joined but we turned it around.

Q: Would you have done anything differently in your career?

A: Scored more goals! I actually really enjoyed it. I loved the crowds, I know people slag off the Irish League but I had a great time. I supported Linfield as a kid and got to wear the shirt, and when you're scoring goals for them, what could be better? My problem was they had Dessie Gorman and Martin McGaughey and it wasn't my job to be them, it was my job to help them and I just felt I was a scapegoat too many times.

Q: You suffered a cruciate knee injury at the age of 35. Was that hard to take?

A: It was because I could have played on until my 40s. I'm still running around like an eejit playing. I played for the Northern Ireland Masters in England and Lisburn Distillery set up an over-35s side for charity matches. I was fortunate to play in good teams with great players. Your career goes by so quickly but I've great memories. I can't complain. My son Ashley, who loves Crusaders, was disappointed for me when I had to stop playing. I just loved playing football, scoring goals in Europe and winning titles, playing against Rangers, Nottingham Forest and Liverpool legends. I never thought I was good enough, so it was all brilliant, and then the injury happened. I ended up going into work with a cruciate injury but got through the shift and a specialist later said the football had to stop.

Q: Did you try management?

A: I went to Crewe United and asked Roy for advice. He told me to gather together the best, hard working players but it was hard going. It was a different mentality from the Irish League and after one season I decided it wasn't for me.

Q: How good a manager was Roy Walker?

A: He was a bit like Sir Alex Ferguson. It was tough love sometimes but he treated everyone the way they needed to be treated. He knew how to get us motivated but often there were no doubts in our minds, we knew we were going to win. There were six Dublin lads and it was like a jigsaw that fitted perfectly. Martin Murray, Liam Dunne, Dublin GAA star Mick Deegan - good solid, experienced lads.

Q: Are you surprised how successful Stephen Baxter has been as a manager?

A: We never talked about his plans but sometimes things just click and he's done an outstanding job from starting with a limited budget. I can remember seeing Seaview full for some games and it's the players which bring them in. The new clubhouse is looking great and it's a nice, modern stadium.

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Family unit: Glenn with children Jilly and Ashley, daughter in
law Olivia, wife Carol and (far left) Jilly’s boyfriend Gary

Family unit: Glenn with children Jilly and Ashley, daughter in law Olivia, wife Carol and (far left) Jilly’s boyfriend Gary

Family unit: Glenn with children Jilly and Ashley, daughter in law Olivia, wife Carol and (far left) Jilly’s boyfriend Gary
 

Q: Who was the best player you played with?

A: I had a great understanding with Mark Holland at Distillery. With the Crues, Jimmy Gardner looked like he was doing nothing and then would score a goal. I always rated Alan Dornan as a top defender on the pitch and great guy off it, too. Alan was a good professional and approachable. Noel Bailie was also always solid and reliable. At the Crues, we had Kevin McKeown in goals and he could be unbeatable while Glen Dunlop was so solid and could run the length of the pitch and score.

Q: And your toughest opponent?

A: Alfie Stewart and Brian Strain were a great partnership but I just always seemed to score against them. They were two tough guys and Cliftonville were always up for it. There was one Irish Cup quarter-final at Seaview which was all blood and guts. Bar the two goalkeepers, everyone else was getting stuck in. Referee Dessie Blair just stepped in, restored control and everyone started playing again, it was like a war in the middle with no bookings... that wouldn't happen today. Big Kirk Hunter was around then and he put the fear into the opposition. I'd rather have him in my team. He'd hit you in training and leave you thinking I'd hate to play against him in a match!

Q: How do you feel the 1980s Crusaders teams would do against today's side?

A: It's a totally different game now. The pitches are better and there's more passing. It seems to be a quicker game. We could mix it up and use different styles. You also had to look after yourself as you were playing against tough guys.

Q: Records are there to be broken, but how did you feel about Jordan Owens passing your goalscoring tally?

A: Well, I broke Curry Mulholland's record which lasted nearly 40 years and mine lasted for about 19 years, so that was pretty good. It's good to see someone like Jordan do the business for one club. You have to put the ball in the back of the net and it's a frustrating game because you can miss a sitter and then stick one in the top corner from 30 yards. I'm disappointed not to still hold the record but I was so proud to say I was top goalscorer, particularly as I never thought I was good enough to make the first team. I went down to Seaview one time with my dad looking to pay in and I didn't think they would recognise me, but I was told 'you're not paying in here'. It's nice people respect what you achieved.

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Honour bound: Glenn presents Crusaders striker Jordan Owens with an award to mark the breaking of his club goal record

Honour bound: Glenn presents Crusaders striker Jordan Owens with an award to mark the breaking of his club goal record

Honour bound: Glenn presents Crusaders striker Jordan Owens with an award to mark the breaking of his club goal record
 

Q: Have you had strong backing from your family?

A: They've been brilliant. You had to be committed to succeed and my wife Carol brought up the kids. Ashley is 27 and Jilly is 24. They have grown up to be fantastic adults. I was away a lot through work or football. My mum Florence and dad Cyril were always interested in how I was doing. My dad played for Dromara Village when he was younger. It was a good family to go home to.

Q: When did you join the Fire Service?

A: In 2000. I was at Ballymena at the time. You're doing different shifts and when I started it was like a war zone and we were busy. It was a big learning period for me, in my early 30s. I still fight fires, though I'm in the prevention department which is educating people about fire safety including on the roads. That takes me all over the country. Pat Jennings is a fire service ambassador and we do work with the Irish FA as well. We are tested every six months so you have to operationally fit.

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Legendary figures: Glenn’s role includes working with Pat Jennings and Gerry Armstrong

Legendary figures: Glenn’s role includes working with Pat Jennings and Gerry Armstrong

Legendary figures: Glenn’s role includes working with Pat Jennings and Gerry Armstrong
 

Q: You must have seen some horrible sights…

A: You're asked are you okay with blood, dead bodies and claustrophobia. You can't stand outside a fire, you're going in there when you can't see your hand in front of your face. Car crashes are nearly worse as you can be hands on with victims. There's a few funny moments when people get stuck in unusual places but you don't know what you're getting. Every day is different but you must be properly trained. A house fire could be nearly 1,000 degrees.

Q: What have been the most harrowing incidents for you?

A: I was in an old church in Tennent Street one time when the whole building collapsed on top of six of us. That was a scary moment which happened so quickly. Luckily, we got out with minor injuries. The thick beams came crashing down and it was a hairy moment. It wasn't our time. At that moment we were lucky. I've seen young people die in car accidents, one young man died in my arms. His car was hit by a lorry and he slipped away. There was a black humour about some things that happened but there is extra help available. The guys wear uniforms but no-one is superhuman, we are ordinary people. While off duty I had to do CPR on a fisherman near my house a few years ago after he collapsed following a heart attack, and I came across a car accident on my way home from home and had to work with no equipment. Your training kicks in and you don't think about it until later on. The fisherman was slipping away but I kept him going until paramedics arrived and did the defib which brought him back. That was the first time I did CPR for real and I hope he's back out fishing today.

Snapshot

Date of birth: November 23, 1967

Place of birth: Lisburn

Previous clubs: Lisburn Distillery, Crusaders, Linfield, Ballymena United

Crusaders record: 296 appearances, 157 goals

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