Thursday 23 November 2017

Finally finding a stage for his talents

Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

WES HOOLAHAN knows the value of an adept man-manager. That's why he was disappointed to hear the news that his old boss from Shelbourne, Pat Fenlon, had been denied the opportunity to take the vacant position at Dundee United.

After a topsy-turvy four years in the UK, Hoolahan is well placed to assess what attributes a manager requires to get the best out of his players, to understand what makes them tick. He is confident that Fenlon would have succeeded in a new environment.

"He's got the pedigree and knows what it takes for teams to win and to get players working well together," said Hoolahan last week. "He was great with me, always talking to me and good with the lads and that side of the game.

"I think it's important. You need to know your players if you're going to get the best out of them. You have to be able to go up and chat to players and have a laugh with them, but then you have to have your distance as well."

The ex-Belvedere youth, now the star of the show with Norwich City in League One, has learned from experience the pitfalls of dealing with commanders who lack those abilities.

Hoolahan is talented, ridiculously talented really -- short in stature, but rich in technical ability. Given freedom, he can punish defences at any level.

The challenge for any manager is to accommodate the 27-year-old, to highlight his strong points and compensate for the areas where he's never going to be a force -- he's not going to dive into challenges to prove commitment. He's just one of those natural performers; there's no point trying to force him into a role that doesn't suit him. Instead, he needs to be surrounded by people who can endeavour to provide that freedom.

Grasping the concept has proved elusive for some managers. Simon Grayson succeeded in giving Hoolahan licence during his stint at Blackpool and results, in the form of promotion to the Championship, followed on from that.

His first season at that level impressed Giovanni Trapattoni and culminated in a first senior cap, against Colombia at Craven Cottage.

Then came a summer switch to Norwich, who, in August 2008, were a club with notions about promotion to the top flight. By his own admission, Hoolahan took a while to adapt. And, while he doesn't wish to delve into the specifics, it's fair to surmise that his relationship with Glenn Roeder was poor. Roeder slammed the player's attitude before the Dubliner even had the chance to get his feet under the table.

That authoritarian approach failed to impress Hoolahan. By January, though, Roeder was gone and Bryan Gunn was temporary boss. The Canaries hurtled towards relegation, with Hoolahan on the treatment table for the final throes; serious ankle ligament damage ended his campaign with seven games to go.

The return to League One started awfully, with a 7-1 loss at home to Colchester spelling the end for Gunn. Paul Lambert, the man who masterminded the visitors' shock success and who knew Hoolahan from Livingston, his first port of call after Shels, was summoned into the breach. Good news for Wes? Initially, it was quite the opposite. He was axed and sent to the reserves.

"I don't think he fancied me as a left winger, which is where I was playing at the time," recalls Hoolahan. "And with the first few games going badly, he wanted to make a few changes and wake a few people up.

"There was no chat or anything. I knew I wasn't right at the time. Coming back from injury, it was taking me a while to get going and I wasn't quite happy, but, really, it was about finding a position for me."

The penny dropped. Lambert favours a diamond formation in midfield and opted to deploy Hoolahan as the most forward member, playing in behind the front two.

"It's more of a free role," says Hoolahan. "I can go and get on the ball as often as I can behind the two strikers."

It's the way it should be, and the results have been spectacular. Better even than Lambert or Hoolahan could have expected.

After a sparkling run of form, Norwich are now in the automatic promotion places, lying in second spot just three points behind leaders Leeds United.

And there's no doubting the identity of the catalyst. With 13 goals already -- comfortably his best total for a season, with four months remaining -- and 11 assists in a series of star performances, the diminutive maestro is at the heart of everything good about their campaign.

"He has been unplayable at times", said Lambert recently. "It's a rare commodity to have somebody like that, with that ability."

After a St Stephen's Day humbling by Hoolahan-inspired Norwich, Millwall boss Kenny Jackett declared his chief tormentor as "the outstanding player in the division".

Those are strong words when you consider the attention being lavished on the Leeds duo of Jermaine Beckford and Robert Snodgrass in the wake of their Old Trafford exploits.

In that context, it's hardly a shock that Hoolahan has also figured in the transfer watch sections, with Middlesbrough manager Gordon Strachan among his many admirers.

"I'm not really aware of that," he says. "I'm just keeping my head down at the moment. I'm quite happy where I am."

It's a typically understated response from an interviewee who chooses his words carefully.

Certainly, the prolific spell at Norwich has given him reason to feel justified in choosing to move to East Anglia at a juncture where other options were available.

"I went to the training ground and that made my mind up," he recalls. "It's one of the best around. There's eight training pitches and they're like carpet.

"As a club, it's a big set-up compared to where I've been before. There's 25,000 people at the games every week and they love their football; it's a great atmosphere around the place.

"It was hard at first, definitely, and then being injured and getting relegated, but it's turned around and I'm really happy here now."

The reality, though, is that Hoolahan is ambitious and wishes to add to his solitary Irish cap. The longer he stays in League One, the harder it will be, so he really needs promotion this term or else a switch is likely.

"You need to be playing at Championship level or higher," he concedes. "League One is good, but it's nothing compared to the top two divisions."

When he returns to that level, and it really is only a matter of when rather than if, he will encounter plenty of individuals who have also graduated from the League of Ireland.

There are some who were nowhere near as successful as Hoolahan was in Ireland, but have benefited from their choice of club and circumstances.

The likes of Kevin Doyle, Daryl Murphy and Shane Long spring to mind.

Even in the past year or so, talents such as Keith Fahey, Jay O'Shea, Brian Murphy, David Meyler and Gary Deegan have gone straight from home into the first-team picture in the top two divisions.

Hoolahan's journey has been slightly more roundabout, albeit an informative lesson in the ways of the world.

"The ones coming over are doing well for themselves. I'll be coming up against Joe Gamble with Hartlepool as well, and I read about Gary Deegan (joining Coventry from Bohemians), a lad I remember because he was only a young lad when I was at Shels," he muses.

"It can be difficult coming over here. It's a different culture, a change of scenery away from your family and home.

"For me, it took me a bit of time to settle when I first came across, but once you get used to that, then you're laughing."

Now that the mood is right, it's simply a matter of seeing where it takes him. There'll be plenty of smiles for the supporters who catch him on the way.

Irish Independent

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