It was fate for Roger Hunt to lead a less ordinary life. At an emotional service at Liverpool Cathedral, we learned how his mother, Ellen, believed that greatness would take her son’s way after a remarkable incident as a little boy.
When Hunt was four, he became obsessed with football. He was practicing with a tennis ball around his childhood home in Golbourne, Lancashire, but one day he kicked him out the front door, chased him and ran straight into the path of an oncoming bus.
“Unfortunately, all he had was bruises,” Bill Bygroves, the Liverpool club chaplain, told a council that had come to pay tribute to one of the giants of English football. “Ellen thought he was ‘protected’ for a reason – she was right.”
Liverpool and England football legend Roger Hunt was laid to rest on Thursday
Indeed she was. Hunt, one of the 1966 boys, died late last month at the age of 83 after a long illness. This funeral would be a celebration of all he has achieved, to recognize how he helped England conquer the world and set standards that every Liverpool striker has striven to aspire to over the past 50 years.
Ian Rush, John Aldridge, David Fairclough and David Johnson – four men who followed him at Anfield – sat solemnly alongside some of Hunt’s former teammates Ian Callaghan, Gordon Wallace and Gordon Milne, as they listened to his life and times.
The stories were rich and varied. Callaghan, Liverpool’s record holder, was also on that England squad 55 years ago, telling how he sat with “Nobby Stiles’ front teeth in my pocket” as his wonderful friend Hunt led the line alongside Sir Geoff Hurst in the 4-2 win over West Germany.
Hurst did not travel to Merseyside, nor did Sir Bobby Charlton or George Cohen, the other surviving members of that England team. The Football Association was represented by Jane Bateman, Head of International Relations, who works closely with the families of those heroes.
Hundreds of fans gathered at Anfield as the funeral procession paused outside the ground
Still, at the beginning of the shift, there was a message from Hurst.
“What a player he was,” said Hurst. “Up there with Kenny Dalglish, Ian Rush, Kevin Keegan and Mo Salah. We always had a lot of chat. I once said, “Have you ever scored with your head?” He responded months later and systematically went through the games he scored with his head!
One of his favorite sayings for me was, ‘While you were scoring goals and making headlines, I followed back and did the defensive work’. Roger was a great player, a very special person and a class act that I had as my strike partner but – more importantly – my friend.
“Rest in peace, ‘Mr.’ Roger.”
World Cup winner and Liverpool legend Hunt (pictured in 2006), died last month aged 83
The knighthood with which he is synonymous was bestowed upon him by the adoring Liverpool Cup rather than Buckingham Palace and that always meant more for a man who scored 285 goals after being spotted at Stockton Heath in the Mid-Cheshire League.
“He had to replace Billy Liddell,” said Kevin Keegan, giving a stirring eulogy. Billy Liddell was so influential at the time, people in this room who saw in the game will tell you they didn’t call them ‘Liverpool’ – they called them ‘Liddelpool’… Roger had to replace him, as a 20- year old.’
It was clearly a huge honor for Keegan to be asked to speak and during his 10 minutes in the pulpit he explained how Hunt was responsible for launching his career in England; he also took the opportunity to request a permanent memorial to one of his heroes.
“I know he wasn’t England manager but Alan Ball withdrew from his testimony and Roger asked if I wanted to play in his place,” Keegan continued. ‘I will never forget the night. It was a terrible night, it was pouring rain. Poor Roger was worried if anyone would come.
Liverpool fans put banners on fence in front of The Kop at Anfield as a tribute
“He had been gone for three years (at Bolton). He thought people would forget him. He needn’t have worried. 55240 in the ground; another 10,000 locked outside. The ‘Boys Pen’ (in the Kop) had so many children with beards, the average age was 45 years!
“I have to end with this — and no one pushed me to say it. Roger was an icon. My interaction with him over the past 10 years has been at the barber shop in Hale. He always had to go first because he thought I would get a perm!
“But may I just say, why isn’t there a statue of Sir Roger Hunt, on The Kop End, where he was knighted? With something like “244 goals – catch me if you can” as inspiration for everyone who comes by, the kids who want to play football.
Kevin Keegan (center) among the legends of the Reds to attend the service at Liverpool Cathedral
“If you did, I think Roger would look down and he’d want one of those kids to get there and he’d want someone to play for Liverpool one day…and his record one day.” would catch up.’
Fittingly, the last piece of music You’ll Never Walk Alone was and spontaneous applause erupted as his coffin was taken away. He is a legend and fulfilled his mother’s confidence that he would achieve memorable things. It was a good thing that this was celebrated.
But among the countless tributes, the sight of his grandchildren and great-grandchildren in tears at the end of the service showed the other side of this occasion, of a family in mourning. In time, they will find comfort in the fact that Roger Hunt’s story will continue to live on.