The first time I laid eyes on Gavin Hunt, he kicked the proverbial sh*t out of me. It was the early 1990s, soon after the unification of all racial football bodies in the country. Hunt was a no-nonsense, take-no-prisoners right-back for Hellenic; I was a speedy left-winger for Santos.
Because Santos had played in the non-racial Federation Professional League (FPL) and Hellenic in the white-aligned National Football League (NFL), it was the first time we’d come up against each other. And, as I said in the opening line, it was Hunt at his pugnacious best. And it’s that same combative, defiant spirit that Hunt now brings to his career as a decorated football coach.
In calling up the mental picture of my first-ever encounter with Hunt, it brought to mind a few famous words by writer/philosopher Henry David Thoreau that “it’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see”. Because there is a depth to everything - in essence, an unseen story to be told.
I’ve subsequently had instances to interact with Hunt on many occasions, especially during his coaching years in the Mother City. But it was last week, after Hunt had eased his Wits team past Cape Town All Stars at Athlone Stadium, and we had a brief chat during the post-match interview, that it reminded me of just how far the 52-year-old has come since those early playing days when my spindly legs were just another meal for his hungry boots.
Some will only see Hunt as the successful coach, but forget that the journey to get there was never easy. It has been more than 20 years in the making - a labour of love, with all the concomitant heartbreak along the way. And there’s lesson in that for this quick-fix society we inhabit.
Because there is no instant gratification when it comes to success, there is only hard work and patience. It is through patience and overcoming hurdles and difficulties that we gain knowledge and experience. It is also through this painful yet painstaking process that we build character, and connect with who we are deep, deep within. Without the trials and tribulations that life throws at us, we are but empty shells.
Don’t look at Hunt’s achievements now, rather acknowledge the rocky path and strength of will and personality he needed to get to where he currently is. Born in the naval village of Simon’s Town, he was a promising 16-year-old defender for Rygersdal in Rondebosch when he was signed by then-Hellenic coach, the late Budgie Byrne, a former England international.
Not too long after my first football clash with Hunt, he was forced to retire when he tore his Achilles. But there was to be no sobs of regret, he immediately shifted gear to kick-start his coaching career. After a stint at Vasco da Gama, he was installed as Seven Stars coach, where he gave a 16-year-old Benni McCarthy his first exposure to big-time, senior football. The year 2001 was probably his darkest moment. After being axed by Hellenic, he just couldn’t get a coaching job in the Cape - no club wanted him. For Hunt, this was simply another challenge.
So he took himself off to Venda to coach Black Leopards. At the time, many thought he had lost his head, but it turned out to be a brilliant, inspired decision. He did great work at Leopards, followed by Moroka Swallows, SuperSport United (winning the PSL title three years in a row) and, now, Wits.
He once told me, in an interview, that his coaching philosophy is really very simple: “I believe that you have to make the best of what you have. Everybody wants to play like Real Madrid and Barcelona, but you can’t do that, because you don’t have the players to play like that. So you have to look at your squad, assess their strengths, and then create something successful with what you have. If you want a word to describe me as a coach, it would be ‘consistent’.”
But, if anything, Hunt’s strength is in his work ethic. In the same way he played the game, the same energy and commitment he transferred to his coaching career, so, too, he demands the same from his players.
And, so, in keeping with the didactic message to be gained from Hunt’s career, it’s perhaps best to leave it to a poet. As Walt Whitman said: “Not I - not anyone else, can travel that road for you. You must travel it for yourself.” And, importantly, even more urgently, there are no shortcuts.