Friday 24 November 2017

Wes's lack of caps 'a shame to football', insists Brady

Wes Hoolahan wheels away to celebrate his stunning goal against Sweden at the Stade de France yesterday. Photo: Paul Mohan/Sportsfile
Wes Hoolahan wheels away to celebrate his stunning goal against Sweden at the Stade de France yesterday. Photo: Paul Mohan/Sportsfile
Robbie Brady of Republic of Ireland acknowledges the supporters after the match between Republic of Ireland and Sweden. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

Samuel Beckett's love of Paris was, maybe, best expressed in his view that the wise thing to do here is "dance first, think later".

Ireland took that philosophy to heart on this balmy evening in the hard, northern suburb of Saint Denis, and, unlike four years ago when the team looked too repressed, too addled to process what it meant to leave your imprint on a major tournament, Martin O'Neill's men showed Europe an infinitely more lucid repertoire here.

At the heart of it was Wes Hoolahan. Relatively old in football terms now and lighter than a ballerina, he summoned a performance that perhaps his whole life might have been building towards. Beckett, surely, would have loved the rhyming lyric that Hoolahan becomes with a football at his feet.

Because everything about him has a poet's understanding of rhythm.

He scored a goal that they could hang in the Louvre and was at the apex of pretty much everything good that Ireland did on a night in which they did rather a lot. Yet, Wes is 33 with fewer than a single cap for each of those years. This was just his 31st.

A heavy preponderance of Irish managers have looked at his art and seen only fecklessness.

"It's a shame to football I think, a shame to Irish football especially that he did miss that much time," said Robbie Brady after in the Stade de France 'mixed zone'. "But he's here now so I think people need to just tune in and catch the best of him because he's still a top-class player.


"He's a brilliant, a class act. And I'm just over the moon for him, no-one will ever be able to take that goal away from him. A man-of-the-match performance as well, he was excellent. Which he always is. He's one of these lads where you think he might get caught on the ball sometimes and he just manages to come out with something brilliant to get himself out of it.

"It's a joy to play with him and a joy to watch him play."

Here's the thing about yesterday in Paris. Ireland looked a proper team. They gave the great bank of green-clad supporters a performance in keeping with the setting. Because Stade de France has seldom looked more regal, Ireland claiming the northern tiers, Sweden the southern, while supporters mingled east and west, everybody civilised, respectful. The singing of anthems was wonderful, evoking a sense of two nationalities embracing an occasion rather than poisoning it. A reminder of the simple, uncomplicated energy of kinship.

And the football, played at breakneck speed, while seldom elegant, was never, never sterile.

There was always the worry, of course, that Zlatan might lay waste on us, that he'd find an early keyhole taking him inside the Irish defence and the rest would be just one, long funeral march. He is a nightmarish physical specimen and, beside him, Glenn Whelan - Zlatan's supposed jailer for the day - might as well have been rattling a cowbell at a crocodile.

Read more: Steven Reid: Positive result can set the tone - just like it did in 2002

On Swedish corners, Jonathan Walters supplemented the sand-bagging, positioning himself beside Whelan like an older brother challenging the school bully to take his chances.

Yet, Ireland palpably got the better of the first half, John O'Shea spurning a 17th-minute opportunity that drew a great eruption of groans from the north end when replayed on the giant stadium TV.

Jeff Hendrick had already worked Andreas Isaksson with a wickedly spinning shot and almost scored one of the goals of the tournament 32 minutes in when curling a sublime effort onto the crossbar after gorgeous interplay with Robbie Brady and Shane Long.

Within three minutes of the resumption, they had the lead their adventure deserved, Seamus Coleman's brilliance setting up Hoolahan whose sumptuous half-volley left Isaksson utterly helpless.

His best goal ever?

"Yes, obviously, scoring in front of the fans in the Euros, it was probably my best goal yeah," he grinned bashfully.

Coleman, the supplier, offered a more analytical description.

"Wes is a top player, a very different player to what we have in the squad," said the Donegal man. "He's someone that links the play and gets in behind defences and makes intelligent passes. He's a top lad and it's great for Wes you know, with the kind of journey he's been on, to be showing it on the European stage.

"I didn't get the ball as much as I'd have liked tonight. Robbie had a great game down the left and a lot of balls were coming down that side. So when I got it, I wanted to make something happen. I beat my man and put it in an area, but I think all credit has to go to Wes. It was an unbelievable finish."

Yet, if anything, it was a goal that brought Zlatan to life too. And with Zlatan alive, Sweden always had a pulse. Their equaliser, just under 20 minutes from time, was a direct consequence of the big man running deeper and deeper into Irish territory and the Irish defence back-tracking in response.

No matter, this was a game that Ireland could and probably should have won. And one, accordingly, that gives them the vitamin of real confidence.

"Yeah 100pc," agreed Brady. "Especially the way we played today in the first half, pushing forward. I've got really good feelings that we can get out of this group.

Read more: Ireland left with uphill task after throwing away lead in Paris

"It's not every day you get to play in a tournament like this in front of thousands of your own travelling fans, which was... unbelievable... It's like nothing I've ever experienced before."

The contest ultimately petered out a little, both sides settling for what they already held. O'Neill began emptying his bench with even Aiden McGeady despatched with a friendly shoulder-tap from the assistant manager.

Rationality inevitably eludes these days, everything becoming magnified by emotion and nerves reducing to little more than flailing rope-ends. But in Saint Denis, perspective isn't difficult to retain these days.

The stadium is a fantasy land to the north of a city saturated with so much introspection and doubt and Parisians seem exaggeratedly and unfamiliarly friendly just now.

Stade de France rises imperiously out of the grey industrial stretch of a suburb more than familiar with the racial tensions and immigrant unrest that fester like great sores across France.

Walk to the corner where Avenue Jules Rimet meets Rue Henri Delaunay and there are still holes speckled across a bin-post from the construction bolts concealed by the suicide bomber turned away from Gate H last November.

So there was welcome beauty to the evening here, much of it provided by the Irish and their team.

As a proud Coleman put it: "You know I always obviously believed it but, witnessing it first hand, you can definitely say them Irish fans are the best in the world. They're something else."

Irish Independent

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