Hunt battles back from a living hell

Poignant return
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The Independent Football

It was a tale that neither Charlton Athletic nor Andy Hunt were keen to publicise at the time, as if the very act of raising hopes about his return to football would immediately cause some malign force to dash them. The same force, perhaps, that appeared to have cut down a career just approaching its prime three years earlier. But in October, after obeying the demand from his washed-out body for a long rest, he left a new home in the central American jungle to attempt the most remarkable comeback in the history of Premiership football.

In the summer of 2000, as Charlton celebrated winning the First Division championship, and looked forward to an immediate return to the big league, there had been no signs of what was to come. Hunt, a goal-every-three-games striker with Newcastle United and West Bromwich Albion, proved a typically shrewd Alan Curbishley signing on a Bosman transfer, scoring 24 times in the championship season - more than any other player in the division. Despite an attack of glandular fever, he missed only two matches.

As he recalled last week, the problems began early in the new season: "About the sixth game, at home to Tottenham, I just felt like I'd hit a brick wall. It was like carrying a really heavy load around all the time, and from then on it just didn't go away." Only two more first-team games were possible, and in the second of them, against Coventry at The Valley, he scored with his final touch before being substituted "absolutely shattered" after only an hour.

A recurrence of glandular fever was ruled out, club doctors were baffled and it took Dr Richard Budgett, the British Olympic Association's medical officer, to diagnose chronic fatigue syndrome, or ME. It was a desperate time: "My body was just screaming at me to do nothing. I had no working life, no social life, no family life. I was put on a graded exercise programme - walking the dog, then a lap of the training pitch, and so on. And in January I played one reserve game, but had a relapse. I got to the stage of thinking I'd never do anything active again. I couldn't sleep properly and was having problems with memory and concentration. After seven or eight months I couldn't see any light at the end of the tunnel; rather than sacrifice my health for the sake of football, I decided to sacrifice football for the sake of my health."

At the age of 30, an alternative career had to be contemplated rather earlier than expected; and one with minimal physical activity. "I'd been dedicated to football for a long time but had always been intrigued by different parts of the world and hoped to move somewhere a bit more adventurous eventually. My other half, Simone, wanted to do some work in the States so we looked at countries nearby. Belize seemed a nice place - beautiful climate, away from the grey clouds of London - and we bought a house there."

Together the couple started a travel business specialising in adventure holidays, along with an internet café near the Guatemala border, and began a new life. Memories of the old one were omnipresent, though, by means of a satellite dish beaming in more Premiership matches than are available in Britain, as well as a pitch belonging to the adjacent equestrian centre.

It was there that the amiable Hunt's slowly improving health was put to an unexpected test last August: "I came home one day and there was a friendly match going on with a local village team, and they were one short. So I played the whole game, and instead of feeling worse and worse for the next couple of days like at Charlton, I felt OK for a whole week. The next week they had a tournament match and I played in that, and it just went on from there, playing eight games. After a while I thought I ought to return to England and see how I was doing."

Charlton welcomed him back for a month's training and three full reserve games at the start of November, but despite getting on the scoresheet for the club again, he could not quite convince them to offer a new contract. "It would have been nice, but I knew it was going to be tough. They've got about six strikers now. But they were good to me, they put me up for six weeks and let me train."

Above all, the experience confirmed Hunt's growing belief that at 33 there might be sufficient life in the old legs to resurrect a career he was convinced was over. He has now put his home and business up for sale (four-bedroomed riverside property with self-contained poolside apartment, stables, three acres of land, etc - to you, US$395,000), and has an agent contacting British clubs about a trial.

Even if nothing should come of it, he will remain grateful to have regained his health from an illness he calls "horrible, just horrible". His advice to those afflicted by it is: "The only thing that can cure you is yourself. What your body's telling you is that you've got to put your feet up, and change whatever part of your lifestyle is causing it. I just learnt to slow down a bit, and over time my body's slowly healed itself." He will spend Christmas in the sun by his pool, looking forward to television coverage of Chelsea's Boxing Day visit to Charlton, of whom he says: "They've done really well and if they can hang in there for the rest of the season it would be a great achievement."

So would a return to League football by Andy Hunt, three-and-a-half years after that last, goalscoring, touch of the ball.

Andy Hunt can be contacted via www.greendragonbelize.com

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