Noel Hunt: 'That joke about my wages stuck and I was made a scapegoat'
A SEASON which started badly and got steadily worse, to the lowest point of his long career, is shaping up for a very nice finish for Noel Hunt and the rest of the Irish Tractor Boys.
Tomorrow, Hunt and his Ipswich team-mates head off to take on their local rivals Norwich City, with a trip to Wembley for the promotion playoff final - and of course possible elevation to the Premier League - on offer.
Hunt, 32, hasn't played for the club since February after he suffered what looked like a season-ending knee injury, but hard work and determination got the Waterford lad back to fitness, as he's been on the bench for the last two games, and if a goal is needed, Mick McCarthy will surely look to the Irish striker to make an impact.
Promotion would mean so much to the club but such a successful finish to the campaign would mean the world to Hunt, as a way of finishing off the worst season of a senior career which began with Shamrock Rovers back in 2002.
"If you'd said to me at the start of the season that I'd be here, possibly a game away from Wembley and have a chance of getting into the Premier League, I'd never have believed it," Hunt told The Herald.
"I've had hard times this season but there's a chance for a great, great finish."
The season started badly for Hunt, part of a Leeds side who began the Championship campaign with a defeat to Millwall. Things would get bad for Leeds but worse for Hunt, who would not play a league game for the club again.
He picked up a bad back injury but, in a bid to prove his dedication, played through the pain and made it worse.
He suffered off the field as the controversial Leeds chairman, trying to curry favour with fans, complained about the club's over-paid players and said that Hunt was on £25,000 a week (he's not).
"It was a very hard time, I was so keen to play that I didn't realise how bad the back injury was, all I wanted to do was play and prove what I could do," he says.
"Over the last 10-12 years in football I have been an honest, hard-working guy but that joke about my supposed wages stuck, people looked for a scapegoat and they found me. It's part and parcel of football."
A move to Ipswich - initially on loan - gave him an exit from the instability (even insanity) at Leeds and a love affair began, as he scored on his début, the winner away to Charlton.
Injury in February threatened to end his season but the dogged Waterford lad was eager to play again, and he's keen for tomorrow's local derby, especially as an injury to Luke Varney has opened the door.
"To get to Wembley would be amazing," says Hunt. "I've been there before, with Reading when Swansea beat us in the playoff final . We were gutted to lose, we went back up the next year as champions, but for us to have the chance of going up, after what has been a hard season, is just something else for me on a personal level.
"Lads told me after that game 'at least you scored at Wembley' but it means nothing if you don't win. And I want to win tomorrow."