Tuesday 23 January 2018

'Wes is as young a 33-year-old as I've seen'

Wes Hoolahan going through his paces during training in Abbotstown yesterday
Wes Hoolahan going through his paces during training in Abbotstown yesterday
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

Wes Hoolahan smiles when he is told about an exchange between Martin O'Neill and a journalist at the press conference ahead of tonight's crunch Euro 2016 qualifier with Georgia.

O'Neill was asked if he would have any concerns about involving the 33-year-old in a second game in the space of four days. The Irish manager's response was emphatic.

"I think with Wes, it's not only that he looks young but he's about as young a 33-year-old as I've seen," he enthused.

"He might be like one of those racehorses, he's 'lightly raced'. During the course of his career, he's not always been in everyone's starting line-out. He's 33 going on about 18."

Naturally enough, the player tells the Irish Independent that he is inclined to agree.

When the rising age profile of the Ireland squad is discussed, particularly with an eye to the next World Cup campaign, the possibility that the panel will be weakened by retirements is consistently floated. Hoolahan is now in the age bracket where his name will be dropped into the mix.

'Weso' was born in May 1982, and Robbie Keane (July 1980) and John O'Shea (April 1981) are now used to hearing their name prefixed with the word veteran and tackling questions about their long-term intentions.


The crucial distinction is that Keane has 141 caps to his name and John O'Shea is on 105. Friday's dismissal of Gibraltar brought Hoolahan onto 20, a criminally low figure for a player of his ability. How could he possibly contemplate the end of the road when it feels like his journey is only properly starting?

"It doesn't come into my mindset at all," he shrugs. "Players at that age talk about retiring but it's never entered my head. If I lose the buzz or the energy or the excitement of playing then, yeah, you've got to think about it but at the moment I'm enjoying every minute.

"I feel good. My legs don't feel tired, my body doesn't feel tired, and the mind doesn't feel tired as well, which is important. So hopefully I still have a good couple of years left in me. I recover quickly from games and I'm looking forward to Georgia, if I'm selected. I feel in better shape now than I did ten years ago."

It's an appropriate reference point as, in the autumn of 2005, Hoolahan was in his last months at Shelbourne. The reminder that the anniversary of his departure is approaching - he signed for Livingston in December 2005 - comes as a surprise.

"Ten years," he sighs, "where's that gone?

"It doesn't feel like that, it's strange. I remember a few things about it. I remember leaving on the plane thinking I'd be back in a year because I loved Dublin back then. I still like Dublin now, but the wanting to come home is not really that much now compared to what I used to.

"Everybody came to the airport to say goodbye," he continues, "There was family there, friends. We'd obviously had a drink the night before. And it was a great few days. I never thought I'd go across. It wasn't a thing that I was thinking about but then Pat Fenlon rang me and said Livingston had made an offer and I could talk to them if I wanted. I said I'd talk to my family and I decided to give it a shot."

For the homebird, the first few months across the water were challenging. Livingston were relegated and he struggled to settle in Scotland. His inkling that he would be back home in a year was beginning to look like a viable scenario.

"I ended up getting a train to Blackpool," he recalls, "I'd been in Dublin for years, always sure of where I was and suddenly I was going from one place to another thinking 'Where the hell am I?' and wondering where it was going but things went from there. I had good times at Blackpool."

A starring role in the League One play-off final win in 2007 was the turning point, the moment he truly believed that his future belonged across the water. "I got into the Championship where there was a lot of good players, good teams, it was bigger than I thought to be honest," he muses. "From that point onwards, I thought this was a good opportunity for me to make a name for myself, to do something with my life. I got a taste for it, I suppose."

There have been bumps on the road, from international exclusion under Giovanni Trapattoni to a ropey spell at Norwich under Chris Hughton, but Hoolahan is in a good place right now.

He is finally a regular for his country and, after helping Norwich to a quick Premier League return, the Belvedere graduate has been selected for their first four games in what is only his fourth top-flight season.

His sense of football satisfaction is matched by his personal contentment in East Anglia, an area where he intends to stay when the boots are eventually hung up.

The inner-city boy is an unlikely fit for country living but he likes everything about his new locality; the people, the lifestyle, the golf and even the weather.

"Good compared to the rest of England and Ireland," he grins.

They were some of the points he stressed when a chance meeting with Robbie Brady on holiday in Portugal this summer turned into an opportunity to give the Canaries transfer target the hard sell.

"I tried my best," laughs Hoolahan, who confesses to selfish intentions. "I told him it was a great club and he'd love it there. I've missed having an Irish player with me too.

"With certain clubs, you see two or three Irish lads together over the years and I haven't really had that so it's great to have him around. He's settled in quickly and it already feels like he's been there for a few years."

The Norwich duo have emerged to take prominent billing under O'Neill, and spirits are high around the camp in the aftermath of Scotland's collapse in Tbilisi on Friday.

Hoolahan is averse to wild statements, however, and noted that a few members of the Scottish camp had spoken in the papers about not booking holidays for next summer.

One game at a time is the daddy of the clichés, yet he intends to live by it. "We were disappointed after Scotland in June," he reflects, "We'd played well and then a sloppy goal knocked the stuffing out of us. With the results the other night, the lads have a bit more confidence."

The playmaker enjoyed his brief in Faro, a licence to get on the ball in front of the three central midfielders in an attempt to make things happen. "It's a role I enjoy," he asserts, "I'm there to create chances."

With age of little relevance, the diminutive supply line has no ­intentions of slowing down.

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