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.
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.”
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.