Brian Kerr: I thought Wes Hoolahan was too small...now he's become our big hope
I am delighted Hoolahan has proved me wrong, because Ireland's chances hinge on his passing ability 'in the hole'
Published 18/06/2016 | 02:30
It was late in the evening by the time I was making my way back from the Stade de France. Night had fallen but Ireland had not.
A few hours earlier, they'd produced a credible performance against a credible team, had held Zlatan Ibrahimovic relatively quiet, to the extent that the playmaker almost everyone was talking about was our little No 20.
By midnight, I'm chatting with one of my football pals over a glass of wine on La Rue du 4 Septembre, when he jokingly says: "Wesley Hoolahan, who'd have thought it would have taken him all these years to become an overnight sensation?"
And it made me smile and think of another comment I overheard a Swedish journalist make as I worked my way through the crowd at the end of the game. "That guy Hoolahan is 34," he said. "Where has he been hiding?"
The answer is in open view. He was just 20 years old, remember, when he was first called into an Ireland squad for a friendly against Greece in 2002. Six years later, during the early weeks of Giovanni Trapattoni's reign, I was in Craven Cottage when he made his debut against Colombia.
Ninety seconds was all he got that night. "Brian," he'd say to me afterwards. "I didn't even get a kick of the ball."
Worse again, four years would pass before Trapattoni would offer him the chance to get another kick.
Yet while I was critical of Trapattoni's hesitation in playing him, I have to confess that earlier in Wes' career, I was also one of the doubting Thomases.
It wasn't that I didn't see his potential. Quite the opposite in fact. I was a frequent visitor to Fairview Park to watch him play for Belvedere, long before Shelbourne signed him.
In 2000, when I was managing the Irish U-18 side, I picked him for a friendly against France at Baldonnell, the only player in our team who wasn't at an English club at the time.
And he did well, operating on the left side of a 4-3-3 formation. Yet while I saw his obvious potential, I also considered him to be physically light and too small.
And I wasn't alone in holding that view. Later, when he was at Shels, he'd go on trial to Sunderland, to Ipswich, Leicester and Millwall and each time he'd come back, wondering what he had to do to convince people he was good enough.
And it kept coming back to his physique. Even when he was helping Shelbourne win League of Ireland titles in the middle of the last decade, around the time I was managing the Irish senior team, he wasn't always in Pat Fenlon's starting XI. Odd as this may seem now, sometimes he had to be sacrificed.
And almost every time the decision was based on physique, on the fact he can get brushed off the ball. To this day, a feeling remains that he was very late in his career getting going on a strength and conditioning programme to build up his core strength.
Chris Hughton, when he was in charge of Norwich, didn't pick him every week. Nor did Alex Neil last season. Yet whoever has managed him has always had great time for him.
On a personal level, I am very fond of the lad, going back to that time he played for that Irish U-18 side, and even though he has matured from a schoolboy footballer into a fully-fledged international, he hasn't lost that innate sense of friendliness, the down-to-earth qualities that make him so likeable.
A few years ago, I remember meeting him at O'Connell's school for a prize-giving ceremony and had a feeling Wes had escaped from the team hotel to be there.
This was during Trapattoni's time, so given how long he'd had to wait before he got called into his squad, he could have been forgiven for making his excuses and staying in the camp.
Yet he felt an obligation to attend. He didn't want to let anyone down.
And that's one thing he has never done for Ireland.
Today, if he is selected, he will win his 32nd cap, all bar one of which have arrived after his 30th birthday. So no wonder Robbie Brady said it was a "shame for Irish football" that he hasn't won more.
And certainly when I think back to Euro 2012, the big criticism the team received that we were continually outplayed in the middle of the field, first by Croatia, then Spain, finally by Italy.
All along, that side was crying out for someone like Wes, a player who could link the play, who could give us an additional number in midfield, who could scrap when required, just as he has had to scrap for selection and recognition throughout his career.
In Euro 2012, we gave the ball away too cheaply. On Monday night, we weren't nearly as wasteful, although there were times when the match did resemble a lower standard Premier League game, with both teams resorting to a fair bit of long-ball stuff.
Today's game will develop a different pattern, though, one where the Belgians will want to play technical football, where the possession stats will be a little lopsided
So it is absolutely vital that we select as many players as possible who are comfortable on the ball, who will try and get rhythm and passing into our game, who can put the opposition under pressure by the quality and invention of their passes, and who can help inject confidence into our side by giving us spells where we aren't solely on the back foot, but where we actually look like getting a bit of control of proceedings.
The player who can make all that happen?
A certain Wesley Hoolahan of Portland Row, Dublin 1.
If Ireland are to win today, you don't want it to be a smash and grab exercise.
You want to have more of a plan that the players are confident of implementing, which is why there is a legitimate case to think about going with a 4-3-3 formation rather than the diamond midfield which served the team well against Sweden.
The reason for the change is simple. Belgium play differently to Sweden. Technically, they're much better but in spite of their deep layers of talent, there are chinks in their armour.
In Eden Hazard and Kevin de Bruyne, they have two fabulously gifted players, but two men who have shown a nonchalant attitude to their defensive responsibilities.
So if Belgium's fancy-dan players do not get involved in the nitty-gritty work then their defenders could conceivably get isolated, especially if either of our full-backs manages to get forward to create an overload down the flank.
Be under no doubt that it's vital to make the Belgians feel uncomfortable defensively.
And the best way of doing that is by positioning Wesley as the link player in a 4-4-1-1 formation, which could become a 4-5-1 shape when Ireland are out of possession.
In this system, Jeff Hendrick would play on the right, James McClean on the left, where both players would be required to take up the dual responsibilities of tracking back to defend as well as attack.
Another plus point of going with a 4-4-1-1 system is that the midfield will remain compact and that every player will know their role, which is not always the case with the diamond formation.
When he gets on the front foot and is aggressive, McClean can unsettle any defender. And there is no doubt that Tottenham centre-back Jan Vertonghen looks a little uncomfortable at left back. So too does Thomas Vermaelen, when he has to turn and chase a player as quick as Shane Long.
So opportunity knocks. No one expects anything easy for Ireland.
But they have a chance of getting something out of Bordeaux today, and they'll have an even better chance if Hoolahan is trusted to last 90 minutes.