From Ashill to Belize: Andy Hunt's football journey
- Credit: PA
Norwich City have a soaring reputation in the game now for trusting youth and developing raw talent. But Andy Hunt was one who slipped through the net.
Hunt’s journey to the Premier League started for his west Norfolk village side, Ashill, with stops at King’s Lynn, a brief trial at Norwich City after being spotted by Duncan Forbes, and eventually Newcastle, West Brom and Charlton.
There was even a match-winning hat-trick at Carrow Road in the Addicks’ 1999/2000 title-winning season that was more than just a game.
“That was one of my career highlights, I have to say, because of the connections with Norfolk, and a lot of people I know are Norwich fans,” he said. “Fond memories for sure. I keep all those hat-trick balls in my house but the signatures are fading all the time it was that long ago.
"It was a pity it did not work out because Norwich was my hometown and that would have been nice, but I did get to score that hat-trick at Carrow Road.
“I did trial but I didn't really have any idea at that age it was a possibility. I must have been 18 because I was working in Norwich at Norwich Union, as it was then. I was playing for my village, for Ashill; just with friends but I was scoring a lot of goals, and we played Watton in a friendly. It was 4-3 I think and I got all the goals.
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"There was a chief scout at Norwich called Duncan (Forbes). He spoke to me after the game and then Norwich got in touch. I had to get permission from work for mornings off to go and train. I remember my first day. It was an indoor sports centre at Trowse. I thought it was going to be ‘Roy of the Rovers’ stuff.
"You train, score some goals and then Saturday you're playing against Liverpool but it doesn't work that way. I spent an hour with this guy smashing balls at me, testing my touch. Now I know as a coach what they were looking for. Very simple.
"It was just him hitting balls at me from different distances, different heights, bringing it down, controlling it and passing it back to him with varying different skill sets involved. Then I went back to work in the afternoon.
“They invited me back the following week and I got to train with the reserves. I did get to play in a reserve game and they wanted me to keep coming, but it was just difficult because I had to take half days off and you never know if it's going to work out.
"At the same time I was playing with King’s Lynn and that was going quite well and in the end it just never happened.”
Hunt did make the grade. But the fairytale ended abruptly after four goals in his first eight Premier League games at Charlton, when he was diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome.
“I had to retire at Charlton just at my peak, which was a shame,” he said. “I was doing really well in the Premier League and the season before, but I got something called chronic fatigue. I didn't know it at the time but in that Division One season where I scored a lot of goals I got glandular fever and I couldn't recover after training and games.
"That whole season I pretty much only played, I barely trained and I scored 26 goals and we were champions. I was just in the form of my life. I think I over-trained and this glandular fever knocked me sideways.
“I managed to get a break over that summer and I came back really strong at the start of the Premier League season. We were top and I had scored four goals in eight games and I think I was the leading goalscorer in the division. I was doing well and then I just got hit for six by this virus again.
"But it wasn't glandular fever, they test you for that, but I just couldn't recover. I went to see various experts and specialists, British Olympic Association specialists, because they deal with kind of over-training issues and things with their athletes, and they diagnosed what I had, but it's a mysterious thing. You can't detect it.
"Maybe in the past they called it burn out. I tried and I tried to recover but it just wasn't going to happen. I decided enough was enough.”
Not for Hunt the well worn path to a post-retirement life back in Norfolk. He and his wife sought adventure further afield. Which is why they have lived in the Central American country of Belize for the past 20 years.
“I just wanted to get away from it all and we decided to buy some property. The tropics seemed like quite a nice place. We came out here, we loved it, we got good value for money compared to owning property in London and that's where I've been ever since,” he said. “So 20 years just this month and we love it.
"We’ve got a lodge, a small hotel in the jungle. I say jungle but just outside the capital with monkeys, toucans and crocodiles in the river. That is a bit scary because my oldest goes spear fishing and they tap the crocodiles on the head. Going fishing for me in the River Ouse with a rod was a bit safer.
“We're on a horse ranch as well so I look out of my window and see horse and cattle. We’ve had a nice business but these last 18 months has destroyed the tourism industry.
"We would take people out to the Mayan temples or cave tubing. But you move on again to another chapter.”
Which means for Hunt completing the circle with his own football academy in Belize to hopefully give others the same opportunity he had to make it against the odds.
“We started about six years ago and there is a lot of very athletic, talented young footballers but the set-up definitely needs a lot of help," he said. "We have been identifying over the years players that we think have some ability, plus the right attitude to progress.
“There are only semi-pro teams out here and we played some games and they performed well. We got to play the men's national team they performed excellently and we have been building up video footage.
"I didn't have anything to compare it with outside of the country so literally sent some stuff to coaches of college programmes and my email inbox is full of scholarship offers for these boys now to go to the US.
“We’re in communication with a lot of clubs now in the UK about bringing them over to do some training, to try out, to get some experience. I'm hopeful we can bring a group to the UK for about about three to five weeks.
"I'm actually talking to King’s Lynn and it would be great to connect with Norwich as my family are still there in Norfolk. We have a lot of talent in this country but we have to make a bit more effort to give players opportunities.
“When you're 17, 18, 19, 20 are you the finished article? Not even close. I know from growing up I was not the best player at that age. But there's a mental side to the game, there's an attitude that you need, you know, you have got to have a pretty thick skin and deal with knockbacks because it's so competitive.
“From my own background I was kind of late to the professional game, certainly in the sense I didn’t come through an academy. I played for King's Lynn against Kettering in a pre-season game, did well, and then I got a phone call on the Monday to ask can I come to train with Kettering.
"I had only got into the first team at King’s Lynn, so I was 19, and I know how fast things can happen. Look at a Jamie Vardy or an Ian Wright and how they came through.”
City, under sporting director Stuart Webber’s direction, have built up their scouting network in south America in recent seasons, and Hunt believes his part of the world is an untapped market.
“The athleticism is just off the charts. But they are a long way behind with the understanding of training and what it takes to move through the levels,” he said. “Full time training doesn't really exist and getting people into that environment is essential, but not easy because of the lack of resources.
"I think I've identified a really high quality group of young players but we are going to find out how good they are.
“We have found out they can play at the highest level here, with the right training. We're now going to be talking to different pro clubs in Europe, in the UK and a lot of it comes down to finances too because when you have to send players over and, and stuff like this, it gets expensive.
“It only takes one or two. I remember in Costa Rica when a couple of their players came over and got into the Premier League and it suddenly changed the whole landscape. It only takes one or two guys to really step up and stand out. So now we have to keep encouraging that.
“Belize is totally untapped but there is a lot of work to create that pipeline and those opportunities. There are high quality players in every nook and cranny in the world.
"It doesn’t matter how many academies or how well your scouting and recruitment is. You can find good players in places you might not have thought to look.”