Sunday 15 September 2019

David Kelly: 'Critics of unsung hero Glenn Whelan have been aiming at wrong target all along'

Ireland's Glenn Whelan. Photo: Sportsfile
Ireland's Glenn Whelan. Photo: Sportsfile
David Kelly

David Kelly

Wesley Sneijder. David Silva. Wayne Rooney. Lukas Podolski. Glenn Whelan.

It seems preposterous to include the hard-edged Clondalkin man in such a stellar selection of midfielders but tomorrow night will accord him such a status.

How about another list? John Giles. Liam Whelan. Liam Brady. Ronnie Whelan. Roy Keane. Glenn Whelan. Again, the 34-year-old would seem utterly unworthy of being mentioned in the same sentence as the lavish luminaries who thrived within the game's pulsing heartbeat in a green jersey.

But he is not only a deserving member of this select group but he stands apart from them too; the 85th cap he will earn at some stage at the Aviva Stadium tomorrow evening a fitting tribute to one of Irish football's unsung heroes.

And, in joining the list of names at the top of the page in this year of the ceremonial international send-offs, Whelan will take his place in a roll call of some honour.

For him, the honour has been deeply personal, one imbued with a strong sense of pride and that spiky enthusiasm that has attached to him throughout an extensive playing career. The honour, however, has not been widely shared, even amongst his fellow countrymen.

And yet, few might take the time to stop and think, as they perhaps surveyed the ill-fitting Harry Arter flailing on the turf against Wales, or any number of his ill-suited predecessors in a variety of games before, just how much Whelan's quiet influence has been missed in the Irish midfield.

Two years ago, he equalled Liam Brady's caps total at Euro 2016 and with the almost routine detachment of a man clearing leaves from his driveway, scuttled the great Zlatan Ibrahimovic down any number of culs-de-sac.

A team which, so briefly, expressed itself on the field that summer, could have only done so with the steely enforcement of Whelan that allowed others to find their voice.

Recall the other notable occasions when Whelan was absent - humiliation to Germany, a humbling by Scotland - and the inextricable link between the curmudgeonly midfielder and stout, structured organisation was always clear to see.

Not that everyone chose to view it through such a prism. The din of TV studios and banner headlines always drowned out a more subtle narrative. Fiction, after all, is often stronger than truth.

The trouble with Whelan was that so many expected him to be something was not.

He often understood this but gradually, as the white noise slowly eradicated any sense of reasonable debate, he decided to withdraw from the discussion.

Before he did so, we remember the time when he was not the only one encased in Giovanni Trapattoni's straitjacket and chose to tell us too, memorably breaking ranks to pierce the bubble of mixed zone waffle.

Ireland were ordered to play in such a repressed manner, he told us in one of the many sequence of cold corridors we huddled together after a match.

His enduring club career betrayed someone whose role with Ireland was often one of mere containment and destruction, both of which he did more than adequately.

Within the more fluid context of a club game with familiar players and precise tactical information, his influence was always respected by the only critics who mattered: his peers and his coaches.

A decade of service and nigh on 300 games in the Premier League suggests somewhat forcefully not that he failed to maximise the best of himself in the international team, but that they failed to maximise the best use of him.

From restrictive tactics which exposed a two-man midfield to the consistent ignorance of players - chiefly Wes Hoolahan - who could do what Whelan could not, it always seemed that he was always the convenient coconut shy as the TV showbiz lampooned his trade.

Seamus Coleman said this week the barbs never stung but they did so sufficiently for him to strike back and, remarkably, produce a rare comedown from his chief tormentor. The thaw soon iced over. After all, it was more convenient to snipe from afar than examine closely.

When consistent decency is ripe for mockery, the current flux and lurching anarchy of the Irish team should offer pause for thought.

And allow us to remember Whelan for what he could do, rather than what he couldn't.

Irish Independent

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