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Sunday 22 April 2018

Hunt: Tough night ahead

Wolves man fires warning to Irish not to fall into old habits of taking rivals lightly

A MERE glance at the team sheets before kick-off would tell its own story when Ireland and Macedonia clash on Saturday night in Skopje.

FC Thun, SV Mattersburg, FC Rabotnicki, FC Pakhtakor Tashkent, Sibir Novisibirsk – they're just some of the clubs where Macedonia's players earn their living. Full marks to any Irish fan who can name – without the help of Wikipedia – which countries those clubs play in.

It's not as if our own squad is bursting at the seams with players from Barcelona, Real Madrid and Arsenal, but Irish players are often guilty of over-confidence when it comes to the opposition.

Never heard of the lad, or his club, he must be rubbish.

OVER-CONFIDENCE

That over-confidence has harmed us in the past; we've managed just one point from six away to Macedonia and didn't score a goal over 180 minutes against Montenegro – and, of course, we'll always have Cyprus.

So Stephen Hunt – a man who knows a thing or two about life at the bottom from his time with Brentford and Crystal Palace – has warned his Ireland team-mates against falling into the old bad habits ahead of the game in Macedonia.

“There can be a touch of arrogance about international football and we can't let that seep into us,” said Hunt.

“You can look at their squad and see players in the Swiss second division or whatever and think that they can't be that great, but we have players in the English second division so we can't think that way – and it's still a good standard.

“I saw a lot of this at Reading. We'd sign a player from, say, the French Second Division, you've never heard of the lad or his club but he turns out to be superb. Someone like Jimmy Kebe; he came in from a lower level and now he's being linked with the top clubs. “If life was that easy, we'd win every game 3-0 or 4-0 but football isn't like that.

“And Macedonia are not a bad side. I saw them when they came to the Aviva. I remember that their left back (Popov) was quite aggressive. He kicked Duffer all over the place and that's the way they play, it's a physical game so we have to be ready for that.

“We need to win this game to win the group. The teams who are level on points with us have home games this weekend and are expected to win. We can take confidence from the win in Armenia. If it's 1-0, 4-0 or 4-3 I don't care, as long as we win.”

The game has come at a good time for the Wolves man as he says he's feeling fitter than ever, largely due to an enforced absence due to injury.

“I am fine in terms of fitness and my general shape, because I was out injured for so long earlier in the season,” he said. “I'm fine now and I'm one of the better ones in the squad. I only started 18 games for my clubs ... that means I am fresh now.

SORE

“I do have a sore Achilles but you get knocks all the time so I am feeling fit and fresh as can be, hopefully that'll be enough to play.”

Now 29, Hunt is eager to make up for lost time. He learned the game in the Euro 2008 campaign (six appearances) and came to the fore in the World Cup qualifiers (seven starts), but injury halted his gallop and his last taste of competitive action was at home to France.

“The Euro 2008 campaign under Stan (Steve Staunton) was a really good one for me, but this one hasn't got going yet, which makes me even more determined to play on Saturday.”

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