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Kirk Hunter: Reputations can earn players a bad name but Roy Walker never let it get me down

 

Kirk Hunter

With Irish League football left playing the waiting game due to the coronavirus pandemic, Sunday Life has delved into the archives.

In the latest chapter of a new summer series, Alex Mills scrutinises Crusaders hero Kirk Hunter, who won two Irish League titles with the Shore Road side in the mid-90s and who remained loyal to the club despite being the subject of serious interest from a host of suitors.

Your most thrilling footballing memory?

It has to be the League championship win in 1994, under Roy Walker.

We had a lot of Dublin boys playing for us - and a nicer bunch of blokes you would never have met.

Big Roddy Collins is turning 60 in August and I'm going down to his birthday party in Dublin. Hopefully we'll be coronavirus-free by that stage.

Even after all these years, we are still big mates. We were such a close-knit group of players and that was the secret of our success.

We had a fantastic team. Glenn Dunlop, our centre-back, was the best I've seen in Irish League football by a country mile.

I won the title again with the Crues two years later, but the first one was always the sweetest.

To be honest, we should have won it the year in between, but we threw it away on the final day of the season, handing it to Portadown.

Your worst moment?

It's still a nightmare for me. I was sent off in one of our final games of the 1996 League championship campaign - and it probably cost us the title.

There are very few teams that had done it three times in a row.

Had we managed to pull it off, it would have been a massive achievement in terms of the teams we were up against during that era.

I was dismissed in the first half. I was a lot physically bigger and stronger than the fella I was running past, but I got the blame for elbowing him in the face.

He was the type of player I didn't have to do that to. It must have looked bad and the referee couldn't wait to get the red card out of his pocket.

Kirk Hunter

Most difficult opponent?

Big David Jeffrey has to be up there because I never got it easy against him.

But there were some hard and tough players around back then. Billy Caskey was another one.

To be honest, it was a pleasure to play against guys like that. They were a different class to what you see on a football pitch these days - and I don't mean to be disrespectful.

You knew what you were going to get when you played against big David and Billy, but after the game we would shake hands and have a wee kiss.

Believe me, they could play. Yes, they could dish it out, but they were skilful.

When I was playing against Caskey in midfield, he would have picked me up more times than I would have picked up myself.

Wee Raymond Morrison was also as game as a badger.

Unfortunately, there are no more players like that anymore - I don't understand it. The game has changed so much.

Person who was your biggest influence?

There were a few people that come into that category.

My brother Titch (Thomas) helped me enormously during my early days in junior football.

Then, Tommy Jackson signed me for the Crues. I'll always be grateful to him for that.

When Roy Walker came in, he had a massive influence on me. He was a magnificent manager.

Make no mistake about it, I gave him a few headaches, both on and off the pitch, but he always threw the arm of protection around me.

In those days, reputations earned certain players a bad name, but not once did Roy ever let it get me down.

Wee Billy Sinclair, who was our coach, was also brilliant with me. I would have gone through a brick wall for him.

There was just something about him. He encouraged me to do things I didn't think I could do - Sinky was amazing.

Biggest regret?

I'm not one for looking back on what might have been.

I could have signed for one particular team more times than I had hot dinners, but I was always loyal to Crusaders.

I loved it at Seaview and the people were good to me - and still are. I had stupid problems on the pitch at times and stupid problems off the pitch, but they always stood by me.

So, regrets, I've none. On our day, no team could have matched us. For a while, the only team that could have beaten us was ourselves.

Unfortunately, that happened a couple of times when our mental approach wasn't what it should have been.

Yes, I was sent off a few times and, when I reflect on it, I was silly. But back then, it could become hot and heavy on the pitch and a lot of boys would have lifted their hands - not only Crusaders players, I may add.

It was part and parcel of the game.

What would you change to make the Irish League more appealing?

Some sort of physicality needs to be brought back into the game.

The boys I mentioned earlier - Jeffrey, Caskey and Morrison - couldn't play in today's League.

Back then, 25 years ago, there were six thousand Bluemen squeezing into Seaview, four of five thousand fans from east Belfast and three or four thousand Cliftonville fans.

There was something there that was appealing to spectators. They knew there were going to see two teams giving it their all.

Under the current rule changes, players are limited in terms of tackling and making physical challenges.

I know I couldn't survive, but I could name 40 players who would be in the same boat.

I remember my bank manager calling me one day when I was cashing a cheque, I didn't know him at all. He introduced himself. He told me he never watched local football in his life, but he went to Seaview to watch me.

It was a massive compliment, but would that happen in this day and age?

Belfast Telegraph