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Sunday 25 August 2019

'I knew what I was looking at' - John Giles reveals how he recommended Wes Hoolahan to a top Premier League club

Read John Giles every week in The Herald

Republic of Ireland's Wes Hoolahan
Republic of Ireland's Wes Hoolahan

John Giles

THE only way we would ever have seen the best of Wes Hoolahan in a green shirt was if Pep Guardiola had, by some miracle, been appointed as Ireland manager 10 years ago.

It’s a fanciful and faintly ridiculous notion given the kind of football which has become Ireland’s stock in trade over the years.

But it needed something like that to allow Hoolahan the space to express himself. Neither Giovanni Trapattoni nor Martin O’Neill did him any favours.

I’m sad to see that Wes has decided to call it a day as an international player and just happy that he got a chance, however restricted, to show the world what he could do.

I have a personal investment in Wes because back in the day, I recommended him to Everton and was disappointed when I heard the feedback from their scouts.

They believed he was too small, too lightweight and not robust enough for Premier League football and that’s the description which has followed Hoolahan around throughout his career like a stray dog.

Fashions ebb and flow in the game and right now, lads like Hoolahan command the top fees and are much sought after by the top clubs. Just a decade ago, nobody could find room for a little man.

I know some will point to Hoolahan’s club career as evidence of inconsistency or that he was in some way physically lacking but I would answer that by underlining the ethos which underpinned football in England for so long.

Coaches and managers were not looking for lads like Hoolahan when he was emerging as a talent. I saw him playing for Shelbourne and knew what I was looking at.

Scouts saw something else and Premier League managers wanted athletes, lads who could run all day and produced great statistics.

He was unlucky. Had he been born even five years later, Hoolahan’s gifts would have been much better appreciated.

 At international level, Hoolahan became the point of conflict around an old argument we’ve been debating in Ireland since Jack Charlton’s days but forget, for a moment, about the brain v brawn, skill over athleticism discussion.

By the looks of things, we’ll still be arguing over that in the coming months and years.

Instead, just think about what Hoolahan did on a football pitch for Ireland when he was picked in competitive games. Think of that pass for Robbie Brady’s goal against Italy.

Think about how he changed games when he came off the bench and how a group of players locked into caution while he was kicking his heels, suddenly caught fire and did improbable things.

Look at all the big results O’Neill achieved over the last four years and examine Hoolahan’s role in each of them.

I know the mind can play tricks and only focus on good memories but I’m struggling to recall a match in which Hoolahan could be blamed for a bad result.

I can think of many where he was the pivotal man for Ireland in delivering good results and other days when he wasn’t on the pitch at all and might have made the difference had he been picked.

For all the talk of stamina and age, Hoolahan was always full of energy and ideas which flowed from his instincts and not a manual.

Yet he wasn’t trusted by Trapattoni or O’Neill. Both men believed that by playing Hoolahan, it was in some way weakening the team. They favoured dogged resistance by less talented players.

O’Neill still follows this path and any calculation Hoolahan made about his future for Ireland had to include the likelihood that he would play a very peripheral role from now on.

Is there anyone to step into his shoes? I’m afraid not, certainly nobody within the current extended group O’Neill will be picking from and no obvious candidate rising from below either.

Hoolahan is the second player to retire since O’Neill confirmed that he was on board for the next qualifying campaign and usually, international managers are not happy to see senior men step down.

Daryl Murphy went first and there may be more before the first games in the new UEFA Nations League get under way in early September, some of whom O’Neill will regret waving goodbye to more than others.

I suspect in this case that O’Neill won’t be too upset. He won’t have to answer any more questions about why he’s not picking Wes Hoolahan.

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