x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Friends are leaders of the pack at Wolves

Kevin Doyle and Stephen Hunt, born 100km apart in Ireland, bonded when they arrived at Reading in 2005. They tell Kevin Affleck why they are looking forward to resuming that partnership.

Stephen Hunt, top, and Kevin Doyle signed for Reading within weeks of each other in 2005.
Stephen Hunt, top, and Kevin Doyle signed for Reading within weeks of each other in 2005.

If things had panned out differently, Kevin Doyle could have been a county Gaelic footballer and Stephen Hunt may well have carved out a successful career as a hurler. "I'm probably more naturally talented at that than I am at soccer," Hunt said.

Instead, sometime in October when Hunt recovers from a broken foot, the pair will be reunited at Wolverhampton Wanderers and seeking to resume a fruitful partnership that blossomed during their four-year association at Reading. It would hyperbolic to put their liaison in the same bracket as Kenny Dalglish and Ian Rush, the Liverpool greats, the England pairing of Alan Shearer and Teddy Sheringham or Dwight Yorke and Andrew Cole at Manchester United. But Mick McCarthy, the Wolves manager, clearly holds the pair in high regard: he asked the club's board to part with £9 million (Dh52.25m) to sign the Republic of Ireland internationals.

The parallels between their careers are unerringly stark. Born 100km apart in neighbouring counties in Ireland, the unheralded forwards had never met until they signed for Reading, who were then in the second tier of English football, within weeks of each other in 2005. The fact that the pair cost £78,000 between them illustrates the meteoric nature of their subsequent rise. On the back of catapulting and then establishing Reading in to the Premier League, Doyle and Hunt made their international debut within a year of each other before both left Reading - Hunt to Hull City and Doyle to Wolves - with an extremely heavy heart in the summer of last year. They are now reunited at Wolves and when Hunt moves into his new house next week, they will live within 15 minutes of each other in the Midlands.

Golfers in the area can expect to see the duo resuming their rivalry on the fairways fairly soon. "I play off 11 and he plays off 16 but that's ridiculous," Hunt said. "I don't think he's in a position to question people's golf handicap," Doyle countered. "His handicap is random and it depends on how he is feeling about his game. He seems to have a different handicap every week. "He's a good golfer. He could be anywhere on the course, most of the time not on the fairway, but he still manages to get a score. He scrambles very well. You never write him off. Whenever you think he has lost his ball he'll always find it somehow. He has this habit of getting up and down."

Their golfing handicaps are not the only subject the pair disagree on. Five years ago, Doyle went from sharpshooter to match-maker and introduced his second cousin, Joanne, to Hunt. "It wasn't anything romantic like that," Doyle said. "We happened to be on a night out and I introduced them and they ended up getting married." Does that make him a relation of Doyle? "I'm not sure," said Hunt. Doyle is adamant it doesn't. "He's not a blood relation, as I keep trying to tell him."

You suspect Hunt is still likely to joke about it when they room together on away trips this season. "He just talks so much at the phone when we roomed together at Reading and Ireland," Doyle said. "I can't get to sleep sometimes. He loves a phone conversation and is always on the phone." Doyle's point is illustrated by the fact that Hunt, ever eager for a conversation, answered the phone in sprightly mood after the first ring when he was called for this interview. Doyle, on the other hand, wearily answered the phone just before the call was diverted to his answer phone after having an afternoon nap following a "tough training session".

Their humour is likely to have a positive impact on the Wolves team and be infectious in a dressing room that has an increasingly Irish influence. McCarthy, the manager, played for and coached the country at the World Cup and he has seven of his countryman on the playing staff. "There are a few in the youth teams, too," said Hunt. "We haven't had an Irish versus rest of the world game in training yet. Hopefully when I get back from injury we'll have a bit of banter over that and get that game on."

It speaks volumes for the esteem in which McCarthy holds Hunt that he signed the 29-year-old on a three-year contract while he was recovering a serious injury that required him to have a ligament re-attached to his foot. But McCarthy has been a long-term admirer of the winger and tried to sign him in January. "When a manager tries to sign you once and then comes back again, that is a big confidence boost," said Hunt. "He's obviously got a lot of faith in me and it's now up to me to go and show him what I can do and repay that faith. I was fairly close to joining in January. Hull turned down the offer and it was out my control.

"I'm glad to be here now but it's very frustrating when I see the boys play pre-season games. I'm one of those players who love pre-season as it's about getting fit and getting in shape. But I'm working hard in the gym and trying to get fit in other ways other than running. "The injury is getting there slowly. It's just a case of not rushing it, taking it slowly and letting the bones heal in my foot. I don't want to set myself any date just in case I'm not ready but I'll try and get as back as soon as possible."

However much he plays it down Doyle clearly played a major a role in luring Hunt to Wolves. "The gaffer [McCarthy] asked me what I thought of him and Hunty obviously phoned me and asked me about the club," said the 26-year-old. "But it was nothing to do with me, really." "Kev was a big factor," Hunt said. "He wasn't really on the phone to me all the time about it but obviously I get on really well with him and know what he's all about.

"He's a good player. We play well together and I really enjoy playing with him. You know what you are going to get with him; he's 100 per cent committed. He gives a good performance week in and week out. He holds the ball up, knows where the goal is so he's the perfect role model for the lads coming through the youth team." Doyle provided a similarly ringing endorsement of Hunt's qualities. "He was Hull's best player last year," he said. "For a winger he gets his fair share of goals, he sets up goals and he is very good defensively. He's a nice guy, too. He is very enthusiastic, full of fun, full of energy and he'll bring great experience to the squad. He always makes everyone laugh and he's settled in really well. He's very funny and always brings a smile to people's faces. He's always involved in everything that is going on."

kaffleck@thenational.ae