It was destiny for Roger Hunt to live a life less ordinary. During the course of an emotional service at Liverpool cathedral, we learnt how his mother, Ellen, believed greatness would come her son’s way after a remarkable incident as a little boy.
When Hunt was four, he became obsessed with football. He would practice with a tennis ball around his family home in Golbourne, Lancashire, but one day he kicked it out of the front door, chased after it and ran straight into the path of an oncoming bus.
‘Miraculously, he only had bruises,’ Bill Bygroves, Liverpool’s club chaplain, told a congregation that had come to pay its respects to one of English football’s giants. ‘Ellen felt he had been ‘protected’ for a reason – how right she was.’
Liverpool and England football legend Roger Hunt was laid to rest on Thursday
She was indeed. Hunt, one of the boys of 1966, died late last month aged 83 after a long illness. This funeral was to be a celebration of all that he achieved, to recognise how he helped England conquer the world and set standards to which every Liverpool striker in the last 50 years has tried to aspire.
Ian Rush, John Aldridge, David Fairclough and David Johnson – four men who followed in his path at Anfield – sat solemnly alongside some of Hunt’s former team-mates 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 appearance holder, was also in that England squad 55 years ago and told how he sat with “Nobby Stiles’ front teeth in my pocket” while his great pal 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 were represented by Jane Bateman, the Head of International Relations, who works closely with the families of those heroes.
Hundreds of fans gathered at Anfield as the funeral cortege paused outside the ground
Still, there was a message from Hurst at the beginning of the service.
‘What a player he was,’ said Hurst. ‘Up there with Kenny Dalglish, Ian Rush, Kevin Keegan and Mo Salah. We always had great banter. I said once: “Did you ever score any goals with your head?” He responded months later and systematically went through games he had scored with his head!
‘One of his favourite lines to me was: ‘While you were scoring goals and making the headlines I was tracking back and doing the defensive work’. Roger was a great player, a very special person and a class act who I was privileged to have as my strike partner but – more importantly – my friend.
‘Rest in peace, ‘Sir’ Roger.’
World Cup winner and Liverpool legend Hunt (pictured in 2006), died aged 83 last month
The knighthood with which he is synonymous was bestowed on him by Liverpool’s adoring Kop rather than Buckingham Palace and that always meant more to a man who scored 285 times after being spotted playing for Stockton Heath in the Mid-Cheshire League.
‘He had to replace Billy Liddell,’ said Kevin Keegan, who gave a stirring eulogy. ‘Billy Liddell was so influential at that time, people in this room who saw in play 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 honour for Keegan to be asked to speak and during his 10 minutes at the pulpit, he explained how Hunt was responsible for launching his England career; he also took the chance to ask for a permanent memorial for one of his heroes.
‘I know he wasn’t England manager but Alan Ball pulled out of his testimonial and Roger asked if I would play in his place,’ Keegan continued. ‘I’ll never forget the night. It was a dreadful evening, pouring with rain. Poor Roger was worried whether anyone would come.
Liverpool fans placed banners on the fence in front of The Kop at Anfield as a tribute
‘He had been away (at Bolton) for three years. He thought people would have forgotten him. He needn’t have worried. 55240 inside the ground; another 10000 locked outside. The ‘Boys Pen’ (in The Kop) had so many kids with beards, the average age of them was 45 years!
‘I have to finish with this – and nobody has prompted me to say it. Roger was an icon. My interaction with him in the last 10 years was at the hairdressers in Hale. He always had to go first because he thought I was going to get a perm!
‘But can I just say: why isn’t there a statue of Sir Roger Hunt, at The Kop End, where he was knighted? With something like “244 goals – catch me if you can” as an inspiration to everyone passing by, the kids who want to play football.
Kevin Keegan (centre) among the Reds legends to attend the service at Liverpool Cathedral
‘If you did that, I think Roger would look down and he would want one of those kids, to come pass there and he would want someone to one day play for Liverpool… and one day overtake his record.’
Fittingly, the final piece of music was You’ll Never Walk Alone and spontaneous applause broke out as his coffin was taken away. He is a legend and fulfilled his mother’s confidence that he would go on to achieve memorable things. It was only right this celebrated.
But amongst the countless tributes, the sight of his grandchildren and great grandchildren in tears as the service ended showed the other side of this occasion, of a family in mourning. In time they will find comfort from the fact Roger Hunt’s story will live on and on.