Saturday 3 December 2016

Outside the Box: Hoolahan deserves final shot at big time

Published 25/05/2015 | 02:30

Wes Hoolahan is likely to be a key figure if Norwich are to gain promotion today
Wes Hoolahan is likely to be a key figure if Norwich are to gain promotion today

Even though his football talent was obvious and a batch of fans used to make weekly trips to Fairview Park to watch him play for Belvedere, Wes Hoolahan’s first appearance in the Irish Independent came when he discussed the difficultly of his Junior Cert maths paper.

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“Wesley Hoolahan (15), from North Strand, thought the paper was easy,” wrote Martha Kearns in these pages in June 1997. “It was much easier than I thought it would be,” said Hoolahan. “The factors were the only thing – I thought they’d be a lot easier than they were. But other than that it was fine.”

The final grade is unrecorded but, in all likelihood, his assessment was delivered with simultaneous deadpan seriousness and a twinkle in the eye that might have given his mates, if not his teachers, a bit of a laugh the following day.

Over the following few years, Hoolahan spent much of his time at the Sportslink complex in Santry under the guidance of legendary Bohemians manager Billy Young, who could justifiably have wondered whether it was a different Wesley Hoolahan (15), from North Strand, who had given the Junior Cert assessment to the newspaper.

“He was a handful, for the class-based studies he was a disaster,” Young told Seán Ryan in 2007, on the eve of his last Wembley play-off final appearance with Blackpool. “I kept getting notes from the teacher, but he’d stay on the pitch all day.

“His commitment to the football part of the course was unbelievable. He was a great worker.”

One of the great misconceptions about Hoolahan is that he is a luxury player or ‘street footballer’, a phrase that is meant as a compliment but something which, if a manager is conservative, is often used as a reason not to pick him.

Street footballers are bracketed in the same category as those who look good in training. In professional terms, they are Monday to Friday players who fade into the background when the pressure is on in a match.

There have been phases in his career where things haven’t gone well but Young’s description of Hoolahan as a great worker has always been difficult to disprove.

Those who encountered him on a pitch will attest that it has never been about the size of the dog in the fight when it came to Hoolahan and for someone famed for his skill and brain rather than energy levels, he could run opponents into the ground.

For anyone who has ever had to endure it in training, the words “bleep test” will send a shudder through their body but, in Hoolahan’s case – on Young’s course – man took on machine and won.

The test examines fitness and, as time goes on, the subject has to get faster and faster to reach their target before the next “bleep” arrives.

That day, most of us bailed out at the earliest opportunity and then watched with a mixture of awe and embarrassment as both the bleeps and Hoolahan got faster – and then the machine stopped before he did. It’s not the sort of thing that’s within the scope of your average street footballer.

Yet, for a player who thought maths was easy, numbers haven’t been particularly kind to Hoolahan. Five foot seven, 67 inches or 168 centimetres is the main factor that has held him back limiting him to 18 caps and now another number has now become significant – 33. The age Hoolahan turned last Wednesday.

The running joke is that Eamon Dunphy still describes him as one for the future but, given that his style of play has never been about pace or power, there’s no reason why he can’t go on to have the career he deserves for club and country in the next couple of years.

Today, he has the chance to return to the Premier League as Norwich face Middlesbrough in a game so huge that it reaches that rare Sky Sports description of being “massive, massive, massive”.

Hoolahan hasn’t always started for Norwich this season but 15 months after they blocked his move back to the Premier League with Aston Villa, he hasn’t sulked and is almost universally acknowledged as the key figure if Norwich are to justify their slight favourites’ tag today.

Villa, of course, have since moved on with Jack Grealish now their creative spark but, if history has taught us anything, it’s that once the Grealish hype dies down, there will be plenty of detractors lining up to say that for all his creativity, he gives the ball away too much.

Grealish had just turned four when Hoolahan first represented Ireland in an U-17 friendly against France in Baldonnell in 1999 but, unlike some of the lucky ones, Hoolahan didn’t have the luxury of starting out in the Premier League where a few good performances can prompt international call-ups and fat long-term contracts.

For a supposed luxury player, Hoolahan has had to graft more than most and, on his first appearance with a British club, he came off the bench to help earn a 1-1 draw for Livingston in the Scottish Cup.

That day, he was sitting next to Graeme Dorrans and both were again on the bench for the replay which they lost 1-0 to Alloa. Not exactly the introduction to the dream move to British football.

Almost 10 years later, Dorrans started instead of Hoolahan for Norwich’s first-leg play-off against Ipswich earlier this month and the roles were reversed for the second leg which Norwich won to book their place in today’s final.

Both have straddled the Premier League/Championship standard in recent seasons those who have watched Hoolahan fight hard to get to this point hold his ability with an affection, and probably a little bias, that they don’t reserve for many. It’s been a long road for him and one that deserves to be back in the big time of the Premier League.

Tweets of the Week

Monday

Matt Taylor (@Official_MattT): Happy retirement to this ledge @stevenreid12 Fantastic career! Enjoy the next step in your journey mate! Xx

The Burnley defender pays a nice tribute to his team-mate and former Irish international. Although the kisses at the end might be a bit much.

Tuesday

David De Gea (@D_DeGea): A very big THANKS everyone! Muchísimas GRACIAS a todos!  #mufcpoty

The Spanish goalkeeper wins big on the club’s awards night. They’ll look nice on his mantelpiece in Madrid.

Wednesday

Joseph Barton (@Joey7Barton): Been up since 6am. Like a kid on Christmas morning. My caddie is not sharing the excitement. Had to shout him out of bed. Lazy git...

Much to the disappointment of many who replied to him, the QPR midfielder seems to be getting over relegation quite well by playing in the ProAm at Wentworth.

Thursday

Steven Pienaar (@therealstevenpi): Was bored

A succinct explanation from the Everton man referring to the previous night’s tweets after the Everton club awards when, among other things, Romelu Lukaku’s manhood got a mention.

Friday

Shane Long (@ShaneLong7): Gonna be wearing these beauties on Sunday! #WeMarchOn #therewillNOTbehaters

Good for the Premier League, less so for a hurling match in Gortnahoe.

Saturday

Bohemian FC (@bfcdublin): Somewhere.... over the rainBohs. Good morning equal Ireland. #footballforall #MarRef #MarriageEquality #Bohs

Fantastic stuff all round.

Sunday

Thomas Vermaelen (@thomasvermaelen): Finally made my official debut yesterday! Worth the wait, enjoyed every second! #FCBarcelona

At £15m for one appearance, we’re not sure Barca would agree.

The Question Nobody Asked

How many managers have beaten Jose Mourinho to a league title since 2002?

Despite regularly being less than pleasant, Jose Mourinho’s record at delivering league titles wherever he goes is stunning, with Chelsea’s Premier League title the latest in a long list.

Since winning the Portuguese league with Porto in 2003, Mourinho retained it with Porto then moved on to Chelsea where he won leagues in ’05 and ’06; he then moved on to Inter Milan where he delivered the title in ’09 and 2010, while his last one before this came with Real Madrid in 2012.

That means only four managers have had teams finish ahead of Mourinho since 2002, starting with Alex Ferguson in ’07 and ’08 with Manchester United; Pep Guardiola (2011) and Tito Villanova (2013) both with Barcelona; and Manuel Pellegrini last season with Manchester City.

Bet You Should Have Done

Chelsea-Man City straight forecast, 11/2

The dual forecast of Chelsea and Manchester City to finish top two in either order was on offer at the start of the season at around 2/1 but it would have been a long time to wait for such small odds.

The chance to multiply your stake more than six times over, however, was worth waiting for, with Jose Mourinho strengthening his squad far better than City to leave them as justified favourites.

Despite some blips, City were always in the hunt for at least second place and this was the weekend to finally collect.

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