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Big Al
Written by ElephantintheRoom on Tuesday, 24th Dec 2019 16:53

When the Kevin Beattie statue is revealed, I suspect it will be his great pal and fellow central defensive titan, Allan Hunter, who will do the revealing. What will be going through Big Al’s mind I wonder? Sadness at his friend’s passing – but mixed with fierce pride perhaps.

Because Hunter was so much more than Beattie’s sidekick. He is arguably himself Town’s greatest ever player. Certainly few, if any, can have so transformed the fortunes of the club, nor left so many indelible memories.

To my mind, no other player comes close to symbolising Town’s transformation from relegation fodder to near greatness in the Robson years. Mick Mills or John Wark through longevity and leadership might be Town’s greatest ever players by some distance, but the incredible and indelible mark Big Al quickly made surely cannot be overestimated – though I will give it a very good try.

To fully appreciate Big Al’s impact you had to be there at the time. We’re talking early 1971/72 after two seasons of relentless slog and another dour relegation struggle is getting into its stride. “Robson, Robson you must go!!!!” sang the North Stand faithful. And to be fair to the morons, Town were a pretty hard watch in Robson’s formative years.

Strangely, in an era when the League Cup is now totally ignored, it was a League Cup humiliation that proved the catalyst for change. A near-capacity 28,000 crowd saw George Best sober and on fire for once as Town were outclassed 3-1 by Manchester United. Robson surely had to go.

It’s difficult to put into words just how uninspiring a choice Robson appeared to be to the intolerant ‘Robson, Robson you must go!’ brigade. His first foray into management at Fulham was truly disastrous. He lost 21 out of 36 games. He came third in a shortlist of three for the Town job with Frank O’ Farrell and Billy Bingham – and both turned down John Cobbold’s job offers, Bingham allegedly numerous times. To say Robson got the job by default does default an injustice.

Robson’s first half-season was good – newly-promoted Town finished mid-table, but the next two seasons were desperate relegation struggles as established stars departed and Robson promoted from within. By season 71/72, most outside the North Stand believed a corner of sorts had been turned.

To his eternal credit Cobbold backed his manager, perhaps sensing that a young Town team guided by their ebullient young manager might be on the threshold of something rather special. Goals were as rare as hen’s teeth. But the still not-forgotten fall out with Bill Baxter and Tommy Carroll meant defensive leadership was deemed the top priority. Cobbold granted Robson £60,000 to go out and smash the club transfer record.

The player on Robson’s radar was Allan Hunter at Blackburn Rovers, a seasoned international with Northern Ireland but plying his trade somewhat under the radar in the second division.

This was back in an era when the annual televised Home International Championship put players from all four home countries firmly in the spotlight. And get this, younger readers, when every team exclusively fielded players solely from the home nations and Ireland.

So quite why Hunter was an undiscovered gem was and remains a total mystery. Clearly George Best and Pat Jennings never mentioned their larger-than-life drinking partner to their respective managers.

It was of course a signing that almost didn’t happen. Both Everton and Leeds had been interested in Hunter, so speed was of the essence. These were two of the top teams back then. Legend has it that Robson and chief scout Ron Gray went to see Hunter play at Lincoln. And so ineptly did Hunter perform that Robson had his head in his hands for most of the match and remained silent throughout the long journey home.

No matter, the slightly agricultural skills of tyro defender Bobby Bell were thrown into the mix and Big Al was on his way for a fee of around £95,000 with makeweight Bell valued at £35,000. Hunter agreed to join within 30 minutes of meeting Robson – and later admitted he had no idea where Ipswich was. Weirdly, within days Bell was on his way to Crystal Palace for over £60,000, more or less what Ipswich paid to land Hunter.

An oft-told story of Hunter’s arrival at Portman Road probably cemented Big Al’s love of Ipswich. He’s just arrived in the club car park with his wife and son when the young family saw a Rover driving towards them with a tweed-clad gentleman standing through the sun roof waving at them and pretending to shoot Hunter Junior with an imaginary cowboy’s Winchester.

This slightly unorthodox welcome was the Hunters’ introduction to chairman John Cobbold who effusively greeted the slightly nervous family and showed them around the ground with obvious pride and enthusiasm. Hunter later recalled that his chairman at Blackburn told him he knew absolutely nothing about Ipswich – but he was going to a club with a helluva good chairman.

Both born pranksters and larger than life characters, Hunter and Cobbold were kindred spirits and bonded from that very first meeting. Whether sharing a sneaky cigarette in the groundsman’s hut, racing Beattie on Cobbold’s donkies Alka and Seltzer, or simply drinking themselves senseless, some of Big Al’s happiest moments were spent with Town’s charismatic chairman.

Hunter made his Town debut on 11th September 1971 – and alas I can remember nothing about the game whatsoever. I even had to look up the score. Town lost 2-1.

You wouldn’t have thought so at the time, but this was the first step on a very steep upward curve. In the two previous seasons Town had finished 18th and 19th. With Hunter on board and Mick Hill top scoring with a dizzying eight goals they finished 13th. Things were most definitely on the up.

Within a year Big Al was to form briefly, what was surely the best central defensive partnership in Town’s history with a fit, teenage Beattie. 'Bacon and eggs' was Robson’s endearing nickname for the powerhouse duo at the centre of his team. A slightly odd moniker for two hard-drinking, smoking individuals who had an almost telepathic understanding. If only Beattie could have stayed fit.

In the next 10 years, Town only once finished outside the top six. Remarkably their league finishes over that time were fourth, fourth, third, sixth, third,18th, sixth, third, second, second Amazing to look back on, but something I and most Town fans glibly thought at the time might go on and on. And in a way it did.

Of course most years there was ultimately heartache. But there was always next year! Strangely, the one real blip, 1978, saw the one real domestic trophy. A decade of truly astonishing success with Hunter at the heart of most of it.

He would have played many more times but for injury and both he and Beattie wheeled out on painkillers for the 1978 Cup Final.

I have many memories of Big Al. A thumping clearance dislodging one of the Ipswich Town letters on the East Stand roof. A calamitous penalty in the chilly wastes of Leipzig.

Those black and white dressing room photos, inevitably with a cigarette in hand. Those matches against Leeds in 1975. The unexpected joy of seeing an Ipswich player playing international football. He played 47 times for his country whilst an Ipswich player, surely a record that will never be beaten.

Perhaps his most memorable outing in a Town shirt was the infamous away game against Lazio where a 4-0 lead would have evaporated without Big Al’s goalline clearances. One, with the judicious use of his hand inflamed the opposition and crowd even more – which scarcely seemed possible.

It would prove a night for big characters as Lazio players ran amok and lost all control. “Believe me this was not football… it was war!” Robson thundered, with perhaps only a mild degree of exaggeration after his battered players made it back to the safety of their hotel at 3am.

In all Big Al played 280 times in his 10 years at Town getting eight goals. Town supporters of a certain vintage will forever associate him with those early forays into Europe under floodlights against not just some of the world's top clubs and players, but players (and sometimes teams) we’d scarcely heard of. In the days before saturation media coverage and bloated Champions League fixtures, the UEFA Cup spawned some memorable match-ups and unforgettable moments.

Even Big Al’s testimonial in November 1981 proved memorable. A crowd in excess of 15,000 turned out to see Town’s recent UEFA Cup team lose an entertaining game 3-2 against Celtic. A floodlight failure was attributed to Celtic fans urinating on the floodlight supports. With tickets costing £1.50, I doubt this set up Big Al for life.

He’d toyed with that trusty ex-footballers’ retirement choice of preference – running a pub. Cobbold offered him the pick of the Tolly Cobbold stable of pubs. Not quite the poisoned chalice then that it might seem today. Wisely perhaps, Big Al chose to ignore the publican’s calling and was to leave Town for a short-lived managerial career at Colchester.

Although I cannot remember Big Al’s first game for Town I can certainly remember his last. February 13th 1982. Shrewsbury 2 Ipswich 1 in the FA Cup fifth round. Hunter was by now a ring-rusty back up to Terry Butcher, but Town’s humbling by a plucky second division outfit was still something of a shock as Town came up short yet again in a competition they were expected to win.

So Big Al began and ended his Town career with underwhelming 2-1 defeats. But it’s what came in the decade between that was so magnificent. “Six foot two, eyes are blue, big Al Hunter’s after you…!!!” (or words to that effect) was his catchphrase sung enthusiastically by the North Stand.

And the most astonishing thing of all is that at less than six feet tall Big Al wasn’t actually very big at all. But what a giant of a man he was – and no doubt still is. Big Al I salute you for the memories.

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rfretwell added 22:43 - Dec 24
Thanks for that Elephant. Great blog on probably the least public of all Towns great players in that period. When I think of Big Al it is his uncanny ability to steal the ball away from an opposing attacker bearing down on him one on one.
He must have given his teammates ahead the greatest confidence to push forward.

shaunmahony added 23:52 - Dec 24
100% agree - was at his first match - remember Peter Shilton almost saving the Frank Clarke penalty in the top corner. Another great memory was him and Beattie both scoring in the 4-1 defeat of West Ham on the last day of the season just after they beat us in the FA Cup semi. Great days!

Meadowlark added 08:48 - Dec 25
Good read. Those of us who were lucky enough to be around in those days will never underestimate Hunter's contribution to our success.
My memories of him are those of an unbeatable centre-half. Dominant in aerial battles and an uncanny ability to fairly stop defenders who were running straight at him. He wasn't the fastest, but his tackling meant that he never had to chase anyone. Also the very occasional mazy run out of defence with the ball at his feet, which always raised a big cheer from the Portman Road faithful.
I met Al several years later when my son was at the academy and he was taking the training sessions. What a nice gentleman. We also met under the gym for a crafty cigarette....
We were blessed with some great players in those days and Hunter was definitely one of the best!

slade1 added 10:50 - Dec 25
Fantastic read! Big Al was a tremendous player and one that is often overlooked when picking Towns best players from the past.
Also its nice to still see him around on matchdays behind the Co Op Stand before games.

Derek2195 added 14:49 - Dec 25
Thank you for that,
Great read , really felt the passion and sense of comradeship of the times !
could have carried on reading had there been more !

floridablue added 18:55 - Dec 25
Excellent read, thanks. Certainly one of Towns legends as far as I;m concerned. Yes I was there as a young teenager when a section of the crowd called for Robsons head and remember it well, thank god for the Cobbolds! I never realized that was Hunters last apperance for Town as I was there at Shrewsbury for that cup game. Another memory is him and Franny Lee going at it for most of the game at home to Derby and Lee coming off worse and 'asked' to be substituted.

solemio added 14:47 - Dec 26
Lovely article and great comments.

All I would add is that he kicked the ball out of the ground more than any other player, mostly over the Cobbold Stand. "If you're not sure kick it out" was definitely his belief.

pablovian added 13:03 - Dec 28
I remember a home game against Spurs in late 1972 when Hunter was marking the taller, stronger Martin Chivers, who in his prime. For the first ten minutes, Chivers ran riot and I thought he would score a hat-trick. However, Hunter stuck to his task, found ways to slow Chivers down and impede him, and substantially neutralized him. I think that the final score was 1-1. That game was when I realized what a great player Hunter was going to be.

Bill Baxter was another center-half who found ways to battle taller, stronger center-forwards to a standstill ...

Ploarbear1 added 05:23 - Dec 29
Not sure that he will be the one to do the unveiling as he has always kept a low profile since his Town days. He hasn't always spoken highly of Beattie either. The Beat knicked his watch round my grandad's house when they were playing snooker for example!!
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