The great artist Wes Hoolahan delivers his masterpiece on the biggest stage
FOR a very long time, Wes Hoolahan has been a brand ambassador for the beautiful game, an artist who regarded a rectangle of grass like a blank, inviting canvass.
Hoolahan’s mind is an aesthetic treasure house, an imaginative palace. Where others paint by numbers, Wes surrenders only to his superior and courageous vision.
In another time, he might have roamed the left bank of this great city, smoking Gitanes, discussing Voltaire.
Here, within a few goal-kicks of the Louvre, the boy from Dublin’s north inner-city delivered his masterpiece.
If, ultimately, it was not enough to break Sweden, Hoolahan’s goal offered Ireland a route-map to the higher terrain.
With one flourish of his right-boot, he dappled the Stade de France in colour; the brushstrokes of his daring framed something glorious, gorgeous, something that oozed hope.
And he gifted the nation something joyous and unforgettable.
Hoolahan swelled the gallery of Irish football masterpieces, with one flourish of technical perfection shaded Stuttgart, the Giants Stadium with a modernist twist.
Ireland craved ignition, for Martin O’Neill to be brave, imitate Dumas, unsheathe the flashing musketeer blade.
He did so and handed it to his Portland Row D’Artagnan.
Wes’ response was to offer a timely reminder that his proud corner of the capital – once known as Monto – is about so much more than gangland, terror, and low-life thugs.
It is a community that, given the chance, can deliver snapshots of transcendent beauty.
Until Ciaran Clark, under pressure, headed the ball to his own net, Hoolahan seemed to have secured Ireland’s first Euro Finals win since Ray Houghton in 1988.
For a tantalising 20 minutes with Hoolahan, the immense Jeff Hendrick and Robbie Brady pulling the strings, it threatened to be a perfect day.
With two blocks of green and yellow, the Stade De France resembled a giant Loop-the-Loop with the chocolate top bitten off: It was the day’s sole refrigerated image.
From fully an hour before kick-off, the stadium shook, a Leviathan who had downed too many espresso shots.
Music pulsed, dancers cavorted, the coliseum shivered and fluttered and smiled: Ibiza had conquered Paris.
A great tremor of emotion ushered the gladiators into the arena, John O’Shea emerging from behind a cloying curtain of sound; the cosmic fury, the luminous magnificence was that of a shooting star blazing across the Parisian night sky.
Contained within that startling jolt of thunder – a visceral palpitation - was a smorgasbord of emotions, an entire buffet-table of desires.
A Vesuvian eruption of yearning, for sure, the bubbling magma of hope and adrenalin reaching a seething, white-hot point where it can simply no longer be contained.
The stun-bolt boom – building to a crescendo all weekend in Montmartre, Pigalle, wherever the endless green swarm buzzed – did not remotely daze the Irish players.
Hendrick bounced on his toes, like an eager colt in the Royal Ascot paddock; Shane Long looked up into the Himalayan green wall and puffed his cheeks, once, twice.
This was the instant of recognition, an understanding that they were stepping into the footprints of giants.
Even O’Neill, urbane and so well-travelled, the manager who led half of Glasgow to Seville for a UEFA Cup final, blinked repeatedly behind his eye-glasses.
Who could blame him as Euro 2016’s giant, flying-saucer shaped showroom morphed into a detonating volcano.
It was a euphoric, teeth-rattling, broiling chorus, a giddy swell of celebration; the long-anticipated consummation of Ireland’s relationship with another tournament finals.
Just as sound waves from the Big Bang can be detected some 14 billion years on, so this eloquent Gallic fury originated in Germany and Italy, in 1988 and 1990.
Some 28 years and one day had passed since that Stuttgart afternoon when Houghton facilitated Irish football’s stepping from the shadows, it’s coming of age.
This was legacy noise, a reminder of how these summer fiestas kidnap the nation’s senses, carry their ecstatically captive audience onto a different plain of existence.
One where reality is cheerily suspended.
A New York columnist sought to describe the giddy mood back in May 1927 after Charles Lindbergh had steered his single-seat, single-engine Spirit of St Louis across the Atlantic’s ocean endless trench of water.
“For a little while,” he wrote, “the aspect of the world and all its people had magnificently altered. We came out of slumps and slouches.”
The same happy dizziness infects Ireland at tournament time.
If Marseilles on Saturday had been a crucible of Neanderthal loathing, a beery festival of hate, here in the Stade De France there was so much brotherhood in being.
The South Stand was a wall of canary yellow, the North a horseshoe of green: Ireland’s sporting soul made corporeal.
Those who had saved and scrimped to make it to Paris were filling their pockets with the experience, savouring the narcotic of belonging as it surged through their bloodstream.
And so a melody of joy bounded up and down the claustrophobic and precipitously banked bleachers, echoed out across the ramshackle streets of Saint Denis.
It was said of the little Russian sparrow, Nureyev, that he concealed his fear in loudness. So, perhaps, the wall of noise was also designed to camouflage a deep-set apprehension.
Who, after all, could forget the false steps of four years ago, the Great Depression of 2012?
In historic, elegant Poznan and the gritty old shipyard town of Gdansk, Giovanni Trapattoni’s threadbare tapestry came apart at the seams.
Paradise was lost, as Ireland, dismal, bankrupt of ambition, adrift, fell into the seven circles of hell.
Three humiliations, an aggregate nine-one spanking. Old Trap’s Ireland resembled illiterates who had somehow gatecrashed a convention of poets and wordsmiths.
If a form of post-traumatic stress embedded itself in Irish bones, Shane Long’s thrust against Germany felt like an exorcism, a banishing of so much lingering anguish.
But a final eviction order could only be served by a redemptive night here in France.
Hoolahan might not have been a match winner, but his goal turned those distressing images from 2012.
For almost the entirety of the first-half Ireland, higher ranked than Sweden in the world rankings, moved with the menace and intent of a bailiff ready to eject old regrets.
What brought this great mass of humanity to the City of Light was the pursuit of wonderment.
Those old schoolboy pals Hendrick and Brady were dishing out great ladles of menace.
Meanwhile Ibra, for all his broody, pony-tailed strutting, resembled a wrongly unassembled Ikea flatpack.
As a gauge to the direction in which O’Neill’s always cryptic mind was blowing, toward caution or the dreamy stars, the deployment of Hoolahan was always going to be the most instructive weathervane.
So there was relief to discover that rather than fretting about the Dubliner’s advancing years (Wes is seven months younger than Zlatan as it happens), O’Neill chose to embrace the vim of his imagination.
That Walters was declared fit (even if he would subsequently look less than 100 per cent) to start also prompted Irish fans to upgrade their ambitions.
At 5.12 local time, Ireland bounced onto the lush carpet to begin their warm-up.
Roy Keane, in blue sweatshirt and shorts, team socks pulled high, passed a ball back and forth to Steve Guppy. The years had not dimmed that Velcro-like first touch.
He looked ready to go to war. If only…
The early moments offered sauna-football, breathless and sweaty in the airless bowl.
But Ireland – with Hendrick spiky and Brady making profitable surges down the left – began to decode the Swedish tactics, establishing a strong beachhead.
Hendrick’s shot sped along an invisible tram track and scorched Andreas Isaksson’s gloved hands; O’Shea in a spooky reprise of 2004, was a toenail from poking Ciaran Clark’s header into the south end goal.
O’Neill wandered around his technical area, a ball of nervous energy, or a kettle coming furiously to the boil.
Arms folded one second, right hand to his chin in contemplative pose the next, like someone desperately trying to locate the answer to a tricky crossword clue.
Unable to sit still, he slipped into traffic-cop routine, arms extending suddenly, manically from his body.
When Brady fizzed a shot just too high, O’Neill’s left leg twitched as if he had stepped on a live wire.
Seconds later when Hendrick’s curling effort traced a goal bound arc, only to thud frustratingly off the crossbar, both of the manager’s hands shot to his head in a portrait of utter despair. Chaplin or Harold Lloyd in one of those silent movies returning home to find their house on fire.
It was rapidly dawning on Ireland that Sweden were workaday, ordinary, as vulnerable as a spindly-legged fawn on the Serengeti.
On the sideline, Keane looked on cold-eyed, a jungle cat with a leonine urge to drink from the Scandinavian jugular.
Then Coleman danced in from the right, dinked a hopeful cross: Hoolahan’s brain rapidly computed angle and trajectory, his foot met the bouncing ball with the force and accuracy of a heavyweight’s blow.
For those 23 minutes we thought it might be the goodnight punch.
That it wasn’t does not diminish the sense that O’Neill’s crew are something more than a washed-up pug.
This was the evening, when led by their wonderful little artist, Ireland again remembered what it was to dream.