Sport Soccer

Thursday 22 February 2018

Hoolahan shows old master Trap a trick or two with display of craft, cunning and sheer simplicity

David Kelly

David Kelly

No clouds in Dublin 4 on a clear evening when, for many Irish supporters, it seemed as if they could see forever.

At various times during Giovanni Trapattoni's tenure with Ireland, he has bequeathed an impatient impression of a world-weary, condescending man who, despite his lifetime in football has, late in life, demonstrated that he knows everything about the game except how to really enjoy it.

For someone whose ageless mind has received so many ideas in a half-century and more immersed in the beautiful game, even now he can confess that some of them can pass straight through it.

This week, he admitted to overlooking the assets that Wesley Hoolahan might be able to provide to a side who seem to be more adept in denying possession of the ball rather than curating it.

And so Hoolahan arrived on the Lansdowne Road turf for his full competitive debut at the ripe old age of 31, five years after first wearing a green shirt. What a discovery!

He was last in the line of players to emerge from the tunnel and last in the line of players facing the flag of their countries before the sparse, sun-splattered denizens. No longer, do you feel certain, will he be last in the thoughts of Trapattoni.

The enormous caveat presented by an opposition so willing in heart but deficient in quality will be deployed as a mitigating factor, but Hoolahan's first immersion in this level of international fare was, if not timely, given his advanced years, than at least telling.

Sadly, the construct into which he was belatedly shoehorned retains its wholly inert, enervating predictability for lengthy periods before the brave Faroese predictably crumbled.

It had all started so brightly. Ireland's initial tempo was an incumbent necessity against opposition of such paucity; quickstep football, shadowed movement beyond static defenders, a willingness to exploit green spaces out wide. Hoolahan operated on a successful pass rate of one a minute during the opening 10 to 15 minutes; he tackled, too, winning back the ball, a primary consideration of his austere manager, on four occasions.

We know he wields a baton but he also yields to no man, despite his diminutive stature.

Robbie Keane, predictably, created the early headline story but eagle-eyed viewers would have scanned down the page to absorb the real meat in the copy.

Hoolahan, dancing on his toes in the midfield sector, first plunged a ball sharply into the feet of Jonathan Walters. Still dancing, the former Belvedere boy resumed possession and his eyes were already scanning to his left and Aiden McGeady's inside run.

From there, the pace of the pass was sufficient for the winger to slip the ball into the penalty area and Keane was able to manage the rest, as he has done so brilliantly throughout his multiple record-breaking Irish international career.

Ireland seemed set fair to maintain this early grip on proceedings.

Hoolahan remained busy, conducting affairs with his sweet left foot but opting for the other if his positioning demanded so; a deft little cross created a corner; a missed give-and-go lost possession but, as players streaked right and left of the intended recipient, one admired the doors he was trying to unlock. As befitting their status in the world game, the Faroese seemed breezily content to act as if nothing untoward had occurred and they maintained their stolid approach.

Ireland returned to their own familiarly slipshod way too. Their game became longer, their right wing was smothered by the redoubtable Faroese left flank and Hoolahan became more peripheral.

David Forde, instead of deigning to employ his full-backs, began to launch the ball in familiarly forlorn fashion with Jonathan Walters' forehead the long-sighted target. If anything, it was a criminally short-sighted approach.

Suitably upbraided after retreating into a tactical straitjacket that has become so systemic under Trapattoni, Ireland re-emerged after a dour second quarter to pump urgent life into the contest. Again, Keane delivered the conquest but it was Hoolahan who provided the context.

He drove past Suni Olsen – a neat mirror image of the man who tore past him from a standing start – shrugging him off as if a bothersome bluebottle. Again, his brain saw the pass before the boot.

Seamus Coleman, liberated after a difficult first half, ran on to the ball and again the pass was weighted so expertly that he only had slip to it across the penalty area without any superfluous infusion of pace. The creation made the conversion.

It all seemed so effortlessly simple. Because it was. The simplicity of Hoolahan's game is the key. He gets the ball and, if he cannot improve things for his team, he will pass it to someone who can. And then he will move on.

Pass and move. Give and go. The patois of the playground.

Later, he barrelled into Simun Samuelson, wresting possession, then landing Ari Jonsson on his backside with a feint and Keane could have nabbed a hat-trick before the hour; when he did, Hoolahan was once more integral.

A late booking on the clever Christian Holst was a black mark which may, inevitably, be held against him by detractors. Or perhaps Trapattoni might have wryly smiled at such a dark art.

Which just goes to show, one supposes, that however spangled one's career may have been, you can never stop learning.

Irish Independent

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