Dennis Hunt – ‘Warrior of the Rainham End’
In the late 1950’s football was changing. The ‘English style’ of play, with its up-and-at-’em, get-stuck-in attitudes might still be winning the cup and football league championships, but was looking horribly exposed in European games against the likes of Real Madrid, Barcelona and Juventus. Stan Cullis, manager of League Champions Wolves and for so long the darling of the press, was getting uncharacteristic stick for his long-ball game.
But Cullis found unexpected support from Harry Barrett, manager of Fourth Division Gillingham. In an extraordinary quote in the Daily Mail, Barrett said ‘I agree with the Stan Cullis style. It’s the way football is meant to be played. I want real men in my team. Tough. Hard. Miners who have been on their knees all week hewing coal. Men of the soil. Give me a team of eleven six foot Texans and I will win the Championship.’ A lot of Gills fans already thought Barrett had a screw loose, and pointed to this quote as proof, but Barrett was true to his word in one sense. His players were some of the toughest and hardest who have ever pulled on a Gillingham shirt, and left-back Dennis Hunt was one of the best of them.
Dennis joined Gills from the army at aged 21. Presumably he passed the alleged Barrett test for signing defenders – which apparently involved Barrett placing the ball ten yards from them and belting it as hard as he could straight at them (if they flinched or attempted to cover the crown jewels they were out) – and made his debut in October 1958. The crowd took to him immediately. If you designed a left-back you would come up with Dennis. 5’ 10’ in height, solidly built, thighs that looked as if they were fashioned from oak, and the capability of producing bone-juddering tackles on opposition wingers. Dennis was a warrior, and nobody dared mess with him.
Dennis survived the clear-out of players following Barrett’s sacking, and new manager Freddie Cox used him as one of the rocks on which he built Gills’ legendary championship-winning defence. With the aroma of liniment from Dennis’ well-oiled thighs drifting over the Rainham End, week after week we roared him on as he ground down yet another right winger with his uncompromising tackling.
But Dennis Hunt wasn’t purely a destroyer, he was capable of strong runs forward and laid on several goals. One in particular was in November 1963 in a 3-1 win against Workington, a mazy dribble from deep inside our half finishing with a powerful shot to put us in control of a crucial top-of-the-table clash. Then there was Dennis the penalty taker. In between Gordon Pulley’s and Charlie Rackstraw’s reigns, Dennis chipped in with a couple from the spot – on both occasions surprising everyone with a deft lob into the top corner when everyone expected him to blast it for all he was worth.
Back in the Third Division, Dennis drifted out of favour a bit, but when Basil Hayward took over he was restored to first choice, tackling with his usual ferocity and scoring some thrilling goals – none more so than his run and blistering shot in injury time which stopped Brighton completing a Christmas double over us in 1967. It was a big surprise when he left for Brentford in summer 1968, after 319 appearances and 6 goals. It was the first of many unpopular decisions that brought about Hayward’s downfall.