Wednesday 25 April 2018

Farewell to Wes Hoolahan: the underappreciated talent who belatedly got chance to leave Ireland legacy

Wes Hoolahan Photo: David Maher/Sportsfile
Wes Hoolahan Photo: David Maher/Sportsfile
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

The major irony about Wes Hoolahan is that a player of such vision is actually afflicted with poor eyesight.

Shelbourne manager Owen Heary, a senior figure in the dressing-room where 'Weso' announced himself to senior football, tells a tale about going through Cabra one day with the future star.

Giovanni Trapattoni Photo: SPORTSFILE
Giovanni Trapattoni Photo: SPORTSFILE

Richie Baker was driving and the youngster asked if he could stop so he could pick up his contact lenses.

Baker and Heary watched on perplexed as Hoolahan walked into a butcher's shop.

"The butcher had to tell him it was next door," Heary explained last year, laughing. "That's what he was like. Blind as a bat."

Since the announcement of his international retirement yesterday, pretty much every story told about Hoolahan has been regaled with a tone of affection.

And yet the story of his Irish career is still a tale of managers suffering their own blind spot when it came to seeing what he could bring to the party.

He did finish up with 43 caps which is considerably more than looked likely when he turned 30 in 2012; he had just one on his CV, a late cameo in a friendly against Colombia four years earlier when new boss Giovanni Trapattoni was assessing his options.

The prime of Hoolahan's career at Norwich coincided with the Italian's tenure, and 'Trap' concluded that the playmaker simply didn't fit into his system.

It was a source of great frustration to the player and most of the Irish football community.

Trapattoni's rigid 4-4-2 might not have suited a No 10 but the stubborn reluctance to even have him around the squad as a Plan B was the real aberration.

It meant that at Euro 2012, when Trapattoni did flirt with the idea of a fifth man in midfield against Spain, it was Simon Cox who was given that responsibility.

Keith Andrews, a staple of that team, pointed out on his OffTheBall.com show yesterday that Hoolahan could have helped him in those fixtures where Ireland's central players were overrun.

There were misconceptions about Hoolahan that presumably stemmed from his size and technical ability. Peers from his younger years would confess that he probably wasn't a model professional in his formative days at Shelbourne. The man himself has admitted as much.

However, he always had a natural level of fitness and improved in that department as the years passed.

He covered a lot of ground on the pitch and allowed teams to press opponents hard.

In other words, he was useful without the ball, much as he will always be remembered for what he did with it.

The view that he was a luxury player would be challenged by colleagues. He was a team player, yet he was possessed with gifts that others lacked.

Martin O'Neill didn't always pick him, but 14 of his 15 competitive international starts came under the current manager. Trapattoni only trusted him for a home match with the Faroes.

O'Neill did adopt a conservative approach towards Hoolahan (left) when it came towards certain away fixtures, and it was obvious there were matches where he felt that Ireland needed more physicality.

Nevertheless, he gave Hoolahan a chance to shine in marquee fixtures and that support was rewarded.

It's no coincidence that most of the golden moments under the current regime occurred when he was on the pitch.

He was prominent in the famous victory against Germany and started both play-off legs with Bosnia.

In the World Cup qualifying away win in Vienna, his creativity opened the door for James McClean's winner. The sturdy rearguard effort in Cardiff was the only keynote success under O'Neill that was secured without his input.

Euro 2016 was the highlight, however. We'll always have Paris, and that superb goal at the Stade de France that sent Hoolahan wheeling away in celebration on a huge stage. That was righting a wrong.

He pinpointed Lille as a highlight, though, and it's an appropriate fit in terms of what it told us about an individual who already had his own fanbase as a schoolboy.

As an impact sub, he could turn games. He was always willing to take a risk and try something. John O'Shea's late equaliser in Gelsenkirchen at the beginning of the French journey stemmed from Hoolahan's decision to take a quick throw at the last minute when others might have waited to imitate Rory Delap. That was the football brain.

In that last-gasp victory over the Italians, Hoolahan was in the right place to miss a golden opportunity, a chance that he was possibly given too much time to think about.

Rather than hiding away and letting the disappointment fester, he made himself available in the next passage of play to send in the teasing cross that Robbie Brady headed into history.

That desire to seek the ball again is what marked him out from others. You might think that the definitive Wes moment would be a superb flick, a precise through ball, or a cheeky backflick.

But instead it was just a simple cross that was perfectly executed; just what the situation demanded.

Hoolahan's status as a cause celebre did fuel a contrarian view that a nation was losing the run of themselves by honing in on a player that didn't always get his game with Norwich.

That argument missed the point. His club status didn't matter all that much; Ireland didn't have another player with his particular skill-set and the team functioned better when he was on the pitch. He knitted it all together.

There were matches where the primitive long-ball approach was accelerated by the absence of a midfielder dropping into space to give defenders an alternative.

In other countries, he would have been cherished and fast-tracked. Don Givens, to his credit, did bring him away with a senior squad in 2002. Hoolahan had to battle his way up the English ladder before he was fully appreciated at home.

He got there in the end, though, and while there's a niggling sense of what might have been, he succeeded in getting to the top table for long enough to leave a legacy.

We'll miss him.

Irish Independent

Sport Newsletter

The best sport action straight to your inbox every morning.

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport