Sunday 15 December 2019

Eamonn Sweeney: Wes Hoolahan is a jazz soloist spicing up our trad band

‘If it wasn’t for Wes Hoolahan there would be no game against France today. Ireland would have departed the championships without a goal to our name.’ Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
‘If it wasn’t for Wes Hoolahan there would be no game against France today. Ireland would have departed the championships without a goal to our name.’ Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

Eamonn Sweeny

The relationship between Martin O'Neill and Wes Hoolahan is one of the strangest in Irish sport. O'Neill hasn't ignored Hoolahan the way Giovanni Trapattoni did, but he doesn't seem to fully trust the Norwich City man either.

So on Wednesday, in a game which Ireland had to win, our greatest creative force was left on the bench. But with 20 minutes left and the goal which would send us though proving elusive, O'Neill decided it was time to go for broke and bring on (drum roll) Aiden McGeady. Hoolahan was given 13 minutes to do his thing. It was enough.

The glorious ball which Hoolahan put on the head of Robbie Brady provided us with a moment to match Ray Houghton's header, Packie Bonner's penalty save, Paul McGrath's series of penalty area interventions in 1994 and Robbie Keane's last-gasp leveller against Germany in 2002.

He was the only player in the Irish team who could have played that pass and it's not the first time he's saved our bacon over the last frantic 12 months. Having been a peripheral figure for most of the qualifying campaign, O'Neill gave Hoolahan his chance in the home game against Germany and was rewarded with an inspirational performance which set the tone for a win that changed everything.

And for all the admirable enterprise we showed during the first half against Sweden, Ireland would have come away empty handed had it not been for the gorgeous half-volley - on his wrong foot - which the former Shelbourne schemer produced.

The excellent individual performances by his team-mates notwithstanding, if it wasn't for Wes Hoolahan there would be no game against France today. Ireland would have departed the championships without a goal to our name.

In a way the relationship between O'Neill and Hoolahan is a bit like one of the great old episodes of Jeeves and Wooster where Bertie decides he can solve a tricky problem on his own but ends up making a mess of everything before being rescued by the judicious intervention of Jeeves. "That was a dashed sticky situation there. It's lucky you were here to sort it out," says Marty Wooster. "I endeavour to give satisfaction, sir," replies Wes Jeeves.

It used to be said that those of us who championed Hoolahan's cause were exaggerating the effect he could have on the Irish team. The 'If he's so good how come he's only with Norwich?' line was often peddled, as was the suggestion that Hoolahan was merely being used as a stick with which to beat first Trap and then O'Neill. No one says either of those things anymore.

Yet the reluctance of both men, canny operators the pair of them, to put their trust in Hoolahan can hardly be explained in terms of personal idiosyncrasy. So why has he been so persistently undervalued? Perhaps it's because of the anomalous figure he cuts in an Irish jersey. Hoolahan is like a footballing version of Louis Stewart or Rory Gallagher, a gifted performer doing remarkable things in an idiom which is not his native one. His team-mates are traditional musicians, playing the old familiar Irish tunes with gusto and spirit but sometimes it's good to hear something a little different to break up the monotony.

To extend the Stewart metaphor, the difficulty for the jazz musician is that his whole act is based around improvisation. This is risky because sometimes things don't work out and he falls flat on his face, whereas you always know what you're going to get from performers of more straightforward music. But when jazz works out it's like nothing else on earth.

Wes Hoolahan's jazz is one of the most magical things in Irish sport. And when he came on stage in the 77th minute in Lille, the crowd held its breath and waited to see what kind of solo he had in store for them tonight. Once more he reached for something no-one else could see and hit the heights. It was sublime and it was beautiful, as it often is with the little man.

Like many great artists, Hoolahan is a true original. There is no one else like him in the squad. For all the optimistic suggestions that we've actually been knocking the ball around a bit at these championships, the truth is that we continue to lag way behind in terms of sophisticated football. Only two teams, Iceland and Northern Ireland, have completed fewer passes than we have during the tournament. That makes what Hoolahan does all the more important. There was an irony in hearing Marco Tardelli banging on last week about a lack of creative intelligence in Irish football when he and Trapattoni steadfastly refused to utilise the one native player who epitomises this quality.

Not the least of Hoolahan's attractions is the fact that his skill-set is specific to soccer. It's hard to imagine any other game where he might prosper. He is not particularly athletic or strong or fast. But he is the apotheosis of the little guy who gets picked near to last for the kickabout and then proceeds to bamboozle the bigger, stronger lads with his skill and trickery. He brings the impudence and adventure of the streets to the biggest of games.

That lack of physical power meant Hoolahan was never going to be picked up as a schoolboy by one of the English clubs. Instead he served his apprenticeship at Shelbourne before making the jump cross channel. Just as Seamus Coleman, off the scouting radar at his remote club in Donegal, did. James McClean, Shane Long, Daryl Murphy and Steven Ward travelled the same route. But the League of Ireland they played in was a good deal stronger than today's domestic competition. As the nation turns its eyes towards France, the condition of the League of Ireland is critical. Unless action is taken one day it will be terminal and the Hoolahans, the Colemans, the McCleans and Longs and Murphys and Wards will remain undiscovered.

That would be a hell of a pity. Because watching Wes Hoolahan do his infinitely subtle and intelligent thing is one of the great aesthetic pleasures available to an Irish fan. The buzz when he gets on the ball is different to the reaction elicited by anyone else.

The reason Wes Hoolahan matters so much is not just what he achieves but what he stands for. And on Wednesday night expectation and execution, aesthetics and achievement, potential and perfection all came together in one glorious moment which sent the nation in raptures.

In soccer, it's not the size of dog in the fight that matters. It's the skill in the dog.

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