Wes Hoolahan: The late bloomer streets ahead and making up for lost time
Published 05/06/2016 | 02:30
It has been one of the slight concerns of Ireland's Euros campaign, and often conditioned Martin O'Neill's team selections, but Wes Hoolahan is willing to slay it as an issue right now. He does not need a week between games for fitness. He is ready to play right through Euro 2016.
"Yes, of course. If the gaffer wants me to play three games in 10 days, barring niggles or injury, I'll be fine."
The words almost seem to underplay it. In person, Hoolahan (pictured) is speaking with the willingness of someone who has waited too long for this opportunity, even if he also says he has "no regrets". At 34, one of the last street footballers is finally getting his first experience of this kind of stage.
It is all the more striking given that he is now set to be one of Ireland's main players, maybe the most important after Shane Long, but that is even more appropriate. If this campaign is all about the squad turning things around after the extreme disappointment of Euro 2012, no-one knows how to do that better than Hoolahan. His slow-burning career has involved more turning points than most. Consider the contrasts.
Four years ago, while many of his team-mates were playing in Poland, Hoolahan was watching with his family from a villa in Spain. Eleven years ago, at an age when many of those same team-mates were Premier League regulars, he was still in the League of Ireland with Shelbourne.
Giovanni Trapattoni was therefore not the only manager to overlook Hoolahan's technique throughout that time, although the Portland Row native admits it wasn't all about style of play or being unappreciated. It's put to him by the side of Ireland's Fota Island training pitch that, at the start of this long wait for recognition, when still playing in Dublin, he was known for carrying a bit of weight. He laughs in confirmation.
"Back then, you didn't realise what a diet was. After a game, it was a burger and chips and a few pints. I just thought that was the norm in the Airtricity League and even when I went to England. Diet and nutrition wasn't there. Now it's all in place.
"Now it's changed, you've got to look after yourself if you want to prolong your career and stay on top of your game, be healthy, stay off the drink as much as you can so you can concentrate on your football."
His physical condition has led O'Neill to wonder whether he is actually younger than 34, and it is possible Hoolahan's delayed introduction to the top level could prolong his career there, in the opposite way to how young prodigies like Michael Owen burned out. He says he remains open-minded about continuing international football after these Euros - "I still feel quite young and healthy and fit" - but does believe that staying in Ireland could have benefited his career in another way.
"For me, it was better to get that experience and play games than go over at 16 and be in the youth team. At 17, 18, I was in the Shels first team, getting games and getting kicked about."
On finally leaving for Scotland, he was getting kicked on the wing rather than in his Shelbourne role in the centre and that might have delayed his progress further - until another turning point at Norwich City.
"Paul Lambert took over and changed my position. He said he didn't see me as a winger, saw me more as a central midfielder, getting on the ball. That season I got a lot of goals and assists. It worked out that was my best position."
It led to the best spell of his career, and O'Neill making him one of his most important players, even though he still calls on an instinctive creativity that Trapattoni would not have allowed. That comes from a very old-fashioned way of learning the game - pure street football.
"Jerseys down to make goals, yeah," Hoolahan says. "My dad used to take me out quite a lot. Where I was born and brought up there was a lot of five-a-sides, a lot of football happening. I think the days of going out on the streets and kicking a football are gone."
There was a time when it seemed like Hoolahan's chance might be gone. That is something else he has made up for.