Friday, 22 June 2018

My tribute to Ernie Hunt

Ernie Hunt
17.3.1943 - 20.6.2018

The death of former Coventry City player Ernie Hunt means that in the space of two years we have lost two of the most talented players of the club's early years in the First Division. First it was Ian Gibson – 'Gibbo' passed away in 2016 - now his partner in crime, Ernie. He was at the club for six years and made 173 appearances for the Sky Blues, scoring 51 goals including 'that' free-kick against Everton in 1970.

Ernie arrived a Highfield Road on the same day as Chris Cattlin on transfer deadline day in March 1968. He had excelled for Wolves the previous season as they had finished runners-up to the Sky Blues and won promotion to the top flight, but a big money (£80,000) move to Everton hadn't worked out and Noel Cantwell, viewing him as a potential saviour for a team looking certain to an immediate return to Division Two paid £65,000 for him. The two new signings made their debut against champions Manchester United the following day and helped the Sky Blues to a famous victory over the Reds. A few weeks later, on the final nail-biting day of that momentous season, it was impish, bow-legged Ernie who took the ball into the corners in the final minutes to waste time and protect a point at Southampton's Dell knowing that it would be enough to avoid relegation.

He will for ever be remembered for the donkey-kick double act with Willie Carr in October 1970 that helped City again beat the reigning champions, Everton this time, a goal that deservedly won the BBC Goal of the Season but was banned by FIFA the following summer. However my favourite memory is of his hat-trick against West Brom in September 1968. The season hadn't started well for City and Ernie's buddy 'Gibbo' had been out injured and rumours swirled that Cantwell wanted to unload the precocious Scot. On top of that Ernie had been dropped to the bench three days earlier. Gibson and Hunt were recalled and 'Gibbo' put on a master-class with three assists for Ernie's hat-trick in the 4-2 victory.


'Hunty' as he was known by his team-mates quickly settled in Coventry and was swiftly introduced to the city's drinking holes and nightspots - in those days footballers were far less disciplined than today's abstemious players. Ernie's exploits feature large in the stories of the club's summer tours of that era to the West Indies and the USA.

In the Cantwell era (1967-72), when the emphasis was very much on defence, Hunt could be relied upon to provide the attacking flair, often ploughing a lone furrow up front. His seemingly wide chest was capable of killing any pass launched at him and immediately drawing admiration for his ball-control. During that period he could always be relied upon to entertain the crowd, either with his audacious skills or a contretemps with a referee, usually with a smile. His playing colleagues will tell you that he wasn't keen on training and liked to lighten the mood at Ryton by wearing fancy dress, anything from a gorilla mask to ladies wigs. Cantwell’s team finished sixth in 1969-70 and Ernie, playing more as a creator and provider on the right, chipped in with nine goals including the winner as City won at Highbury for the first time. The team qualified for the UEFA Fairs Cup and although the Sky Blues fell at the second hurdle it was Ernie who scored City's goal in the 6-1 debacle in Munich just weeks after the famous donkey-kick goal. He finished as leading scorer that season with 13 goals and again the following season with the same number. Ernie appeared to be out of Cantwell's plans in the winter of 1971-72 but following the manager's sacking in early March he was recalled by caretaker boss Bob Dennison and scored some vital goals to ease relegation worries.

Following the arrival of Joe Mercer and Gordon Milne Ernie's days were numbered and he played a handful of games before going on loan to Doncaster and in December 1973 he left for Second Division Bristol City. Sadly his fitness and form deteriorated but not before he helped Bristol to a shock FA Cup victory at Elland Road. After less than 20 games for the Ashton Gate side he was out of league football and playing for non-league Atherstone.

Born in war-time Swindon, the son of Swindon speedway rider Ernie Hunt, he was christened Roger Patrick. However growing up he was known as 'Little Ernie' and the name stuck although some say he adopted the name Ernie to avoid confusion with the legendary Liverpool striker with the same name. A prodigious schoolboy footballer, he was Swindon Town's youngest ever player when he made his debut six months after his 16th birthday in a Third Division game at Grimsby alongside two players, David 'Bronco' Layne and Jimmy Gauld, later implicated in football betting scandals. After three goals from 16 games in his first season he was an ever-present the following campaign as Bert Head's young team which included Mike Summerbee, Don Rogers and Bobby Woodruff started to attract interest from bigger clubs. In 1962-63 the Robins won promotion to Division Two for the first time and Ernie was top scorer with 27 goals. His form was recognised by England boss Alf Ramsey who gave him three Under 23 caps but never promotion to the full squad. He topped Swindon's scoring lists the following season but the team were relegated in 1964-65 and Ernie was snapped up by Wolves for £40,000. In two seasons at Molineux he netted 35 goals in 82 games and was top scorer in the 1966-67 promotion season, although he in three games against the Sky Blues he was well shackled by Dave Clements and failed to find the net.

In 1967-68 season he achieved what must be unique – three visits to Craven Cottage with different teams. On the opening day he appeared there for Wolves then, weeks later, joined Everton and played there for the Toffees. Finally in April he turned out for the Sky Blues there after signing from Everton.

Life after football wasn't kind to Ernie. His marriage broke up and he flitted between various jobs including window cleaning (he fell off a ladder and broke eight ribs) and running a pub ('it was like giving a match to an arsonist' he told me). In the early 1980s he was hard up and sold his stories of match-fixing to a Sunday newspaper. He alleged shenanigans in vital City relegation games at Southampton and Wolves in the early seasons in Division One and involving Leicester City's games in 1969. Back then, at his pub, the Full Pitcher in Ledbury, he told me with an impish grin, in his broad West Country accent, about the Wolves game. Ernie knew most of the Wolves players from his time at the club and allegedly offered them a financial inducement to go easy in what was a vital game for the Sky Blues at Molineux. City led through a stunning Hunt (who else?) goal until twenty minutes from time when Wolves won a free-kick thirty yards out. Wolves players were taking their time deciding who was going to take the kick when from nowhere Peter Knowles raced up and hit a thunderbolt shot past Bill Glazier and into the top of the net. According to Ernie the Wolves players had not told Knowles about the 'deal'. Many of his humorous stories appear in his excellent biography, 'Joker in the Pack' by Chris Westcott, published in 2004.

Ernie was a regular at Legends Days for a number of years and famously one year was getting such a great ovation from the fans that he held up the start of the second half, resulting in a ban on future perimeter parades by the former players. It was clear however in his last few visits that his health was failing, physically and mentally and after the death of his second wife a few years ago he entered a care facility near his Gloucester home.

He is survived by two daughters, Nikki and Sallyann, and a stepdaughter Simone.

His former playing colleague Chris Cattlin, who arrived at Highfield Road on the same day, was shocked by the news of Ernie's passing.

I became very good friends with Hunty over the years,” said Cattlin, “My memories of Ernie are that he was a tremendous player and tremendous professional footballer. He played the game with a smile on his face. He was a character but through the laughter and the joking he was a proper man, and certainly a proper footballer. Whenever I think of him I get a smile on my face. He was a great footballer and a great geezer.”

RIP Ernie

2 comments:

  1. Lovely obit, Jim, a very fitting tribute, thank you.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Terje Johansen24 June 2018 at 09:49

    Thank you, Jim

    ReplyDelete