Where on earth is Andy Hunt? That might not seem like the most pertinent of questions right now, a day before the start of the World Cup finals, when the key global issues might appear to be where on earth is Roy Keane, or the England midfield?
But Andy Hunt has gone missing, not simply into the treatment room like the England midfield players, but right off the face of the earth and his disappearance may say as much about football as all the broken feet in the Far East.
Hunt was nearly 30 when he vanished, nearly two years ago. He had been at Newcastle United, scored a hatful of goals for West Bromwich Albion, moved to Charlton Athletic and was their top scorer in the promotion season of 1999-2000. The following season started well – two goals against Arsenal, four goals in eight matches and then, all of a sudden, nothing; not one goal, not even a name on a teamsheet. Finally, at the end of the season, came a single sentence in the press: Andy Hunt has retired from the game because of chronic fatigue syndrome. And with that, he was gone.
Where? Former footballers tend not to stray far. They stay in the game or go into the media; they do corporate work for there old club or they fulfil the old cliché and run a pub. Hunt was certainly not pulling pints in southeast London, though, and the rumours made his disappearance only more intriguing. And so we tried to find him. The sportsman with the unusual illness had become the Holy Grail.
The first phone call was to his former agent, but he had lost touch and so, too, had Charlton. At West Bromwich, staff had heard he was breeding racehorses in South America and an inquiry at the door of his old house in Greenwich revealed that it was actually Central America and not horses but chickens. Finally came some help from Kettering Town, who said that they had signed him from Kings Lynn and the secretary there said, no problem: Hunt’s father, Terry, runs a local fire protection company and services the club’s fire extinguishers – here’s his telephone number. Bingo.
A few months later and a number of e-mails later, my plane lands in Belize City airport. A taxi takes me, not down the coast where the beaches and the scuba-diving have nurtured a healthy tourism business, but an hour inland, where the vegetation thickens and gives way to dense jungle. We stop at a river – which is home o crocodiles – and a distant roar-grunting sound fills the air, which is apparently jaguars. And across the creek is the home of Andy Hunt.
He is in his vegetable garden when I arrive. He grows broccoli, onions, pumpkins, melons, mushrooms, all sorts and he is passionate about it. He also keeps chickens, although he has only four left (his dog Phoebe, has murderous tendencies). However, there is some excitement today because his poultry stock is to be replenished. A local who covets Hunt’s lawnmower has called round – “the lawnmower for four ducks and four chickens,” he says – and a deal is done. This is partly what Hunt is here for: the Good Life, self-sufficiency Tom and Barbara-style, but some way from Surbiton.
Yet he has come primarily to get away. Football made him and it also broke him, its relentlessness and stresses taking an eventual toll. That is why, with the game about to explode into life in Japan and South Korea, Hunt could not be happier than where he is on the other side of the world.
“I count myself lucky that I didn’t make it to the very top,” he said. “I can’t imagine what life would be like there.” Does he miss football? “No. It’s great not being around it. Football is mayhem, it’s crazy. I’m not that interested any more.” And so he begins his story.
It started in September 2000, after a home win against Tottenham Hotspur “I was supposed to go to my friends wedding reception, but physically I couldn’t move,” he said. “I was dizzy, went home, straight to bed, could hardly get upstairs. It was horrible.”
Charlton played Newcastle United next – “I was rough as anything, I couldn’t run around” – and then Coventry City. “I felt terrible from the start, I was a wreck,” he said.
In the second half against Coventry, a shot struck the opponents’ crossbar and bounced down to Hunt, 15 yards out, “And I just flopped forwards to head it and scored. And that was it, they substituted me and I never played again.”
Charlton gave him time off; they were extremely sympathetic, especially when the chronic fatigue syndrome was diagnosed. “But I was like a zombie,” Hunt said. “I spent the next eight months like that, sitting at home doing nothing. I had so many horrible symptoms: I couldn’t remember things, my legs were heavy, I wasn’t sleeping at night, I couldn’t stay awake during the day. Mentally it was worse. I couldn’t do my job, I wasn’t happy, I was bored, I couldn’t handle a social life. I was a mess.”
Doctors proscribed Prozac for the depression (It didn’t work); his search for a remedy went so far as to have his fillings reset (that didn’t work either). “I made a few comebacks to training. I’d come in, get changed, do a jog round the perimeter of the training field and then I had to go home, knackered for the rest of the day. It was pathetic.”
Throughout all this he was drawing his handsome Premiership Salary. Indeed, his contract is such that he could be sitting Greenwich drawing it today. After soul-destroying months on paid leave, however, a change of tack was required. As he said: “No amount of money was worth going through that for another year.”
It helps that Hunt has a somewhat broader outlook than many footballers (although he shrinks from such an assessment). He likes travelling, he wants to see the world and likes reading – he has been through Lord of the Rings five times. So when he and his girlfriend, Simone, a former MTV presenter, got on the Internet to look for an escape, they were not simply looking for a beach.
They began by searching Commonwealth countries and when deepest darkest Belize came up, it was a direct hit. Next they found properties for sale, flew over for a week, saw an extraordinary seven-bedroom wooden dome perched on the side of a jungle river that cost peanuts, so they bought it. And that was it – football career over.
‘It’s great not being around football. It’s crazy. I’m not that interested any more’
Now, sitting amid jungle noises and tropical heat, he smiles at the suggestion that he should have any regrets. It had by no means been easy settling in Belize; it took a while to learn that insect repellent would not keep the scorpions and tarantulas away and it did not help being informed, on the day that they arrived, that a band of Guatemalan gunmen were on the run and were last seen crossing the river near their home.
Neither has the move completely cured him. The village football team begged him to play for them once and the result was the same. “I just felt horrible for two days,” he said. “Physically, I can’t do it.”
Mentally, though, he is completely refreshed. There is something to be said for having howler monkeys in your trees, for being able to swim in the river (he sears the crocs don’t bite) and ride his horse Gandalf (named after Tolkien’s wizard), through untarnished tropics. It has given him a new outlook on life. “I’d been in football for ten years,” he said. It’s when you’re stuck in something, you don’t know what else there is.”
Even before his illness, he believes, he had outgrown the game. “The enjoyment was all gone. My last full season couldn’t have gone better and I just couldn’t enjoy it. I really didn’t like being in the public eye, it’s relentless. But then, take David Beckham – how does that guy sleep at night? How much time does he get to himself? He’s constantly under the spotlight.
“Don’t get me wrong, it’s not a bad life. Going out night clubbing and drinking and coming in at four in the morning and then training the next day. It’s all right for a few years, but it gets boring. The most bizarre thing is, for the last few years I was eating well, looking after myself and going to bed at normal times. This illness should have happened back then. But I’ve moved on now. Football’s drifted completely out of my mind.”
And in it’s stead, grand plans are developing. He and Simone have bought a shop near the Guatemalan border, he has already designed its website – HYPERLINK "http://www.greendragnbelize.com, please mention it" www.greendragnbelize.com, please mention it – and they intend to sell book, coffee, smoothies and health food that will be grown on their next bright idea, a thousand-acre farm.
“We’re hoping to be able lease some land to local farmers and try to show them how they can farm without chemicals and pesticides,” he said. He thus has no time for Tolkien and is reading up furiously on alternative vegetable crops. O, and there is impending fatherhood to fit in too.
Apparently, there is a World Cup about to start, although there is no time for it here. “You’re joking,” he said, wide-eyed, when informed that England have been drawn in the same group as Argentina. “And did Brazil qualify, too?”
The Times, May 30 2002