‘Big Al’ – A true Town legend and one of Sir Bobby Robson’s best-ever signings
Allan Hunter was one of Ipswich Town’s best-ever signings, helping drive the Blues to become one of the most feared sides in England and Europe. ROSS HALLS went to meet ‘Big Al’.
Allan Hunter has often been regarded by many as one of Bobby Robson’s best-ever signings for Ipswich Town.
That’s quite some feat when you think of the many top quality players Robson went on to sign at Portman Road... Paul Mariner, Frans Thijssen, Bryan Hamilton, Arnold Muhren, among others.
But Hunter’s signing was especially key. Indeed the story is well documented
It was back in September 1971 and Robson thought he would be sacked after his team had won just one of their first seven Division One games and had been torn apart by George Best and Manchester United in a League Cup clash at Portman Road.
Instead, and in what was typical Ipswich Town fashion at the time, instead of sacking Robson, chairman John Cobbold gave him the funds to buy Hunter from Blackburn Rovers for £60,000 (plus Bobby Bell). Town lost only three of their next nine league games and, within a year, the Blues had gone from also-rans to a real force.
The rest as they say...
Today, Hunter – more than 45 years on from his move to Suffolk – still lives in the town with his wife Carol.
A cabinet full of football memories, including his many caps from his international duties with Northern Ireland, ‘Big Al’ – as he was affectionately known among Town fans – loves life in Ipswich... now of course he knows where it is!
“Back when I signed, I didn’t have a clue where Ipswich was,” Hunter said.
“I knew it was somewhere near Colchester, as I played there when I was at Oldham many years before, but that’s all I knew. After I signed, I went back to Blackburn and told my wife I had signed for Ipswich and the first thing she also said was, where’s Ipswich?
“At that time Everton and Leeds United were also both wanting to sign me, but I don’t know, I just wanted to go south.
“Gordon McQueen was at Leeds and he was one good centre-half so I didn’t know why they wanted me, and Harry Catterick the manager of Everton wanted to sign me too.”
Not that Hunter was quite sure Robson would actually go for him after an inept performance for Blackburn against Lincoln one Tuesday night when Robson went to watch him.
“I had a real stinker against Lincoln,” Hunter said.
“It was one of the poorest matches I played for Blackburn and Robson was at the match with chief scout (Ron Gray) who had told Robson for months he had to sign this lad.
“They both travelled up to watch, but Ron told me later he had his head in his hands during the game, because I was so bad.
“Apparently, on the way back to Ipswich, Robson never said a word. But it turned out okay and the first thing Robson said to Ron when they got out of the car was, ‘I’m going back up there tomorrow to sign that boy’.”
Hunter and Robson met at Blackpool airport and within 30 minutes the deal was done. It was the beginning of a love affair between Hunter, Ipswich Town and the fans that was to last more than a decade.
By the time Hunter did leave Portman Road, he had helped Ipswich Town to become one of the most feared sides in English, even European, football and he had an FA Cup winner’s medal t’boot.
“I just can’t describe how the club was in those days from the chairman to the groundsmen, we were all equal. That’s what made it so special,” Hunter said.
“In those days the club was run by the Cobbolds. Chairman John was out of this world, he was fantastic, such a great man!
“John would go to the groundsmen’s huts and have a smoke and just chat to them, I even did that myself on a few occasions.
“Everything about the club was, well, I could not have asked for anything better. We weren’t the biggest club in the world, but we did well.”
‘Did well’ is quite some understatement, as Robson built an Ipswich side that became feared as a top quality footballing outfit.
Country cousins they may have been to some, but on the football pitches of England and Europe, Ipswich Town were feared, collectively and individually.
Hunter was a top class, no-nonsense defender, who could play too.
He’d be worth a fortune in today’s market.
Nicknamed ‘Big Al’, the song in the North Stand would ring out: “Six foot two, eyes are blue, Big Al Hunter’s after you”, should any slight altercation between the County Tyrone-born Irishman and an opposing player ever look like kicking-off!
Hunter admits he loved the chant!
“Of course I did, it was great,” he said.
“It was nice walking down the street and fans would shout it across the street to me.
“The funny thing is, I’m only five foot 11 and three quarters. But I don’t think that would rhyme would it?”
Hunter’s place in the Town team was established from the off and his partnership with England international and colossus, Kevin Beattie, who made his debut for Town just a year after Hunter arrived, blossomed... ‘Bacon and Eggs’ as Robson called them.
Hunter has nothing but praise for his central defensive partner, whose career was cruelly cut down by injury.
“Beattie was some footballer, he had everything,” Hunter said.
“In the air, on the ground, his strength was just unbelievable. The only problem he had was he had no right foot. But he was so good he could get away with it! He was a marvellous player.
“It was a pleasure to play with him....He came in as a young lad and he has said that I helped him along at the start. But he did alot for me here.
“He was remarkable, his physique and everything were unbelievable.
“Robson made up the bacon and eggs phrase for me and Beattie because we just gelled and if I went and done things to attack the ball he was always behind me – and vice-versa.
“We didn’t need to work at it because it was something that came naturally for the two of us and it was good. We were just a good partnership. Off the field we shared a room on our travels, so it was good that we could get to know each other.
“I remember saying once that me and Beat would be sitting on the other side of a room from each other and we would know what the other was thinking because there were times I would, or he would, burst out laughing and the boys would say, what you bloody laughing at?
“And we would say “mind your own business” because we knew there was things going on.
“It helped on the field because we didn’t even have to talk because we knew each other’s play.”
While Ipswich continued to improve and impress, they still couldn’t get their hands on that elusive major piece of silverware in the Portman Road trophy cabinet.
They had gone close in the FA Cup in 1975 when an Alan Taylor-inspired West Ham knocked them out in the semi-finals at Stamford Bridge.
But in 1978 that all changed as Town beat Arsenal in the Cup final at Wembley, a huge occasion for the club and their fans and a first major trophy since 1962 – although Hunter almost missed out.
“I had to have a fitness test the morning of the final, as I was really struggling, so I didn’t know if I was going to play to be honest,” Hunter said.
“I always wanted to play in an FA Cup final when I was growing up in Ireland and it eventually happened – praise the Lord for that!
“It was amazing that I was fit enough to play. I was wishing 3pm to hurry up and come round after I had done a bit of work in the morning because I didn’t want any reaction.
“But that didn’t happen and it was a relief.”
There were plenty of good times for Hunter in a close-knit Ipswich Town squad that gelled and were guided by a manager, Bobby Robson, who was set to take over the England team after leaving Portman Road.
Robson was a man Hunter respected.
“We had several busts ups, but at the end of the day I respected him and I think he respected me,” he said.
“He was able to put up with my Irish oddity because he knew I was part of this good Ipswich team who were all it in together, from the manager and the players, to the chairman and the fans.
“The club was so homely. When the supporters’ clubs in Suffolk had dances, the players and their wives used to go and we all enjoyed it.
“We always looked forward to them. We weren’t told we had to go, we just went because we wanted to.
“The whole thing was first class at the club.”
It wasn’t just at Portman Road Hunter was getting rave reviews. He was a fixture in the Northern Ireland squad and played alongside two of the best players to come out of the country – Pat Jennings and George Best.
“I played for Northern Ireland at amateur, youth and senior level,” Hunter said.
“I played with George Best and I drank with George Best, what a wonderful player. He was out of this world. OK, he had a problem with his drink but he was a wonderful lad.
“Pat Jennings was another outstanding player I played with, a pleasure to play with both of them.”
But as the 70s moved into the 80s the amount of matches Hunter played for Town began to diminish and his last game for the Blues was an FA Cup fifth round defeat at Shrewsbury in 1982.
After 355 first-team appearances, it was time to move on. It was May 1982.
“Mr Robson came and told me Colchester would like to talk to me about being their new player/manager,” he said.
“But he said I didn’t need to go because at the time I was helping out with the reserves with Charlie Woods and it was good because I got along really well with Charlie.
“Robson said I could stay because he didn’t want me to go, but I had his blessing if I did.
“I thought, you know what? I’ll try it.
“But I was only there three days when I came home one night and told my wife I didn’t know why I had gone there, I’d done the wrong thing, I knew in those three days I wasn’t going to be a manager.”
While he may have wondered what he had gone and done, Hunter actually didn’t do badly at Layer Road.
In his 32 matches in charge, the U’s won 17 of them and he even won a manager of the month trophy. By January 1983 though, he was gone.
“It was strange,” he said.
“The chairman, Mr Cadman, said the players loved me, they thought I was great, doing a grand job, etc.
“But he knew something was up and asked, “what’s the matter?” I said nothing, it’s just not for me, I couldn’t do it because the job is 24 hours a days, seven days a week.
“I couldn’t think of anything else, I couldn’t even play a round of golf because I was thinking who I was going to put in the team on Saturday.
“This went on for six months but in the end I left, although I went back as a coach for Mike Walker who was the goalkeeping coach at the time, but who then took on the manager’s job.
“We left a while later, which I felt was a shame as the club were doing quite well.”
Growing up in Ireland, Hunter was a Spurs fan, “because of Danny Blanchflower, he was my man,” which became even more ironic when Blanchflower became the Northern Ireland manager.
“Danny took over at Chelsea as manager too for a brief spell. I was in my last few years at Ipswich and he would ask me go come and help him at Stamford Bridge.”
Today, Hunter is never happier than at his Ipswich home – in Suffolk, a county he has come to love – and calls home.
He plays golf and bowls and enjoys a beach hut at Felixstowe.
His wife Carol has come the full journey with him from Coleraine, in Ireland, where Hunter moved to from his home-town village of Sion Mills, after he went to play for the village side.
They have two boys – the eldest Lee a fine player, who went on to play for Wigan and Colchester – and they have four grandchildren.
Hunter was inducted into Town’s Hall of Fame in 2009.
Now aged 71, the glint in those Irish eyes is still very much there.
‘Big Al’... a true Ipswich Town legend.
‘BIG AL’ FACTFILE
Full name: Allan Hunter
Date of birth: June 30, 1946
Place of birth: Sion Mills, Northern Ireland
Playing position: Central defender
Years Team Apps (Gls)
1962–1966 Coleraine 99 (2)
1966–1969 Oldham Athletic 90 (1)
1969–1972 Blackburn Rovers 91 (1)
1971–1982 Ipswich Town 355 (10)
1982 Colchester United 26 (0)
1969–1979 Northern Ireland 53 (1)
1982–1983 Colchester United
This interview first appeared in issue five of Kings of Anglia.... issue six is out now and available to order here