Richie Sadlier: Wes Hoolahan's call was right for Ireland
Former Manchester City goalkeeper Bert Trautmann famously stayed on the field for the final 17 minutes of the 1956 FA Cup final with a broken neck.
Franz Beckenbauer played much of the 1970 World Cup semi-final for West Germany with his arm in a sling. And Paul Ince played four games for England in the 1998 World Cup with a broken ankle.
There are countless other examples of similar acts, where players put the good of their club or their country ahead of their own well-being. And they are roundly praised for their heroism every time. It’s how fans imagine they would behave if they were ever in that position. Not that there are any games you shouldn’t want to play, but there’s no way you would want to miss the big ones if there was a chance you could do a job. And even if you weren’t 100 per cent you would never ask not to be picked.
Wes Hoolahan acted a little differently last weekend during Ireland’s trip to Warsaw. Prior to the game against Poland, Martin O’Neill went public about a private conversation he had with Hoolahan the previous day, in which the player is said to have ruled himself out of consideration to start. O’Neill named him as one of the subs and brought him on in the 73rd minute of the match. It raised an obvious question for many people: if you’re fit to be involved in any part in a game, why would you not play from the start?
Also, and maybe more to the point, why would you not want to start in a game of that importance if you are a player of Hoolahan’s ability and influence? After all, it’s not like he has a long and illustrious career with Ireland to look back on. It wasn’t so long ago that he must have thought a meaningful role in international football had passed him by. Here was his chance to make his mark on a stage that once looked beyond his reach, yet remarkably he opted to sit on the bench. Does this raise doubts about his character or his commitment to the cause?
Many people I spoke to in the past week thought that it did.
Ignore for a moment any suggestion that O’Neill was being less than honest. It doesn’t add up, particularly for a man of his experience. After all, if his account wasn’t what actually happened, Hoolahan could deny it at any moment, which would make O’Neill’s position virtually untenable. You wouldn’t have much credibility as a manager if you resort to asking your players to cover for you publicly because you are not big enough to stand over your own team selection. You would lose the dressing room instantly. In any case, no player would tolerate their attitude being questioned as the result of such spineless management.
Let’s therefore accept it happened. Hoolahan approached O’Neill and said he wasn’t up to playing from the start. The specific reason wasn’t made public but we know Hoolahan had missed training due to a heel injury. Rather than it being grounds to query his mentality, though, I think it demonstrated exactly the opposite from a player who had umpteen obvious reasons to act out of self-interest. He put the cause of his team-mates and the country ahead of his own personal gains. The stakes were too high for Ireland to carry a player that wasn’t physically up to it. He’d be shafting the team and the country if he kept it to himself, so deserves credit for putting the interests of the team ahead of his own.
There are people who say that players want to play every game. They say it as if no other course of action would be even considered, as if being a footballer limited you to thinking only of yourself. But players regularly act intelligently, selflessly and professionally too. They can often look beyond their personal ambitions to consider what is best for the team. Question Hoolahan’s decision to ask to be omitted from the start all you like, but don’t assume it was motivated by anything other than the desire for Ireland to succeed.
I played through pain several times in my career. Some days it was because I didn’t want to lose my place or let anyone down. I wanted to show I was dependable and tough, willing to do whatever I could for the team. I did myself irreparable harm by doing this too often.
There were occasions too when I let myself be talked into it, knowing deep down I was nowhere near capable of doing the job. Other times it was simply because I really wanted to play. When my lack of fitness was exposed, though, and it cost the team during a game, there wasn’t anyone impressed or thanking me for being so determined.
Not everyone can acknowledge their own limitations, I know, but it’s a gift at a time when an entire country is expecting. Hoolahan made the right call and Ireland should be thankful he did.
Sunday Indo Sport