Wes Hoolahan's moment has arrived, says John O'Brien, so let's hope he gets to enjoy it
Vincent Butler was flicking through a collection of old files last week when his eyes lit upon an interview he'd given the Irish Independent almost a decade ago. In the course of the interview, Butler, then Ireland under 15 manager, was asked to name the best player he'd ever seen. He smiled when reminded of the answer he'd given: a young Shelbourne left-winger by the name of Wesley Hoolahan.
Butler knew there were thousands of more distinguished footballers he could have chosen but, as a Belvedere man, he'd been watching Hoolahan mesmerise defenders for the best part of 15 years by then and the simple truth was he hadn't seen a more talented player on a regular basis. Not Robbie Keane. Not Damien Duff. Not anyone among the hundreds of talented young Irish kids that had passed through his hands.
The trouble for Hoolahan was that, on its own, talent wasn't enough. When it came to the Ireland under 15s, Butler had to make the tough decision not to include Hoolahan in his squad. "When he was under 14 he looked like a nine-year-old," says Butler. "He was willing and he was confident but would he have been able to cope physically with top international defenders at that stage? In my opinion, no."
For Hoolahan, the tyranny was to be born into a football culture where strength was often seen as a more valuable commodity than skill. At La Masia, he might have blossomed into a special talent. In England, however, he conducted the usual trawl of Premiership and League football clubs, dazzling academy coaches with his talent, deterring them with his lack of bulk.
"I remember he went to Sunderland when Kevin Phillips was in his prime," says Butler. "I was talking to a youth development coach there who asked me how tall Wesley's mother was. The theory was that a boy would always grow taller than his mother. So I said, 'well she's taller than Kevin Phillips' mother anyway' and he just smiled."
Sunderland didn't take the chance, however. Nobody did. So Hoolahan did the next best thing. He signed for Shelbourne, worked relentlessly on improving his upper body strength and never lost sight of his ambition to play at the top level in England. If this meant taking the scenic route through the lower Scottish and English Leagues, then so be it. Whatever it took, he would do it.
And, of course, it is shameful that it should have taken such a wondrous talent so long to fulfil its potential. Twenty-four when he got the chance to ply his trade outside Ireland. Twenty-six when he received his first senior cap. Twenty-nine when he belatedly became a Premier League player. The list of those favoured ahead of him in the Irish midfield includes Jonathan Douglas, Alan Quinn, Michael Doyle, Martin Rowlands, Alan O'Brien and Paul Green.
But let's be careful not to rewrite history here. When he was at Shelbourne, unarguably the best player in the domestic League, Hoolahan had his advocates on the Tolka Park terraces, but there was no wider clamour for his promotion. The night he ran the show against Deportivo La Coruna at Lansdowne Road in 2004 should have convinced us conclusively of his gifts, but still we remained silent. That is our shame too.
"Maybe Wes wasn't vocal enough," says Butler. "But there was never a big campaign by the media to get him in. I'd always be expecting somebody to say why isn't Wes Hoolahan in the squad. They'd be asking why isn't Seamus Coleman in there or Marc Wilson or somebody else. But nothing about Wes. It was only when Trapattoni went to see him that he got a look-in."
Along the way there were missed opportunities. Butler recalls the family travelling excitedly to Greece in 2003, believing Hoolahan would gain his first cap only for Don Givens, manager that night, to leave him on the bench in frustration. They thought he might have another chance when Brian Kerr became manager that year, but then Ireland was relatively flush with midfield options at the time. Hoolahan would have been a luxury for which Kerr had little need.
So he did what he had to do. Went to Livingston and then to
Blackpool, driving the club to promotion from League One, confounding those who doubted he'd be able for the harsh cut and thrust of lower League football. Now at Norwich, Hoolahan has proved himself an accomplished Premier League player, not a world-beater perhaps but he has looked comfortable with each forward step and gives the impression there is still more to come.
And maybe, at 30, there is still time for a fruitful international career, the chance to add to the brief cameo he got against Colombia in 2008. Hoolahan is the reason Wednesday's austerity friendly against Greece at Lansdowne Road is worth getting excited about. If he is picked from the start and given licence to dictate the game the way he does for Norwich, then there is value in the evening. If not, it is time to ask even more searching questions.
Hoolahan can provide something Irish football desperately needs right now. An antidote to the putrid 'system' forced upon us these past four years. At a time when expediency is fast taking over national pride in team selection across the globe, there is something to savour in the prospect of a player from the heart of inner city Dublin finally getting the chance to perform on his home turf, in front of his own people.
That the privilege has been so long coming is resolutely our failure. Not his.