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Sunday 22 April 2018

John Giles: How can two men who played under Brian Clough not recognise Wes Hoolahan's importance?

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John Giles

John Giles

IT is an enduring mystery to me that Martin O’Neill and Roy Keane, two of the finest midfielders to play the game and certainly, two of the best the island of Ireland has produced, cannot see what is so obvious.

Both men are devotees of Brian Clough and if ever there was a manager who let players play and encouraged them at all times to be brave, it was him.

Yet they don’t see that when Wes Hoolahan is on the pitch, Ireland are at their best.

That has to be the conclusion after three years in which Hoolahan has been under-used for Ireland.

In the games he has played, his performances have been almost totally positive.

Sure, he had to fight for his position in midfield against Moldovan midfielders and he lost a couple of those early battles.

But on balance, and I’m not just talking about Ireland’s win in Chisinau, Hoolahan’s contribution has been good for Ireland any time he gets a chance to do his stuff.

It would be an interesting exercise to scroll back through all the goals Ireland have scored during O’Neill’s time to find out the contribution, if any, Hoolahan had.

To keep it simple, let’s just deal with what has happened since Ireland qualified for Euro 2016 and measure Hoolahan’s influence on the team.

He scored against Sweden and was near enough man of the match alongside Jeff Hendrick.

Against Belgium, he had a poor enough game like just about every other player but paid the price and didn’t start against Italy.

But he was the key man in the win in Lille. It was his pass, just after he missed a sitter, which gave Robbie Brady the chance to be a hero.

Rightly, Brady and Hendrick received great praise for their performances in France but for me, Hoolahan’s work was the most telling and it pains me to think that Hoolahan has been so little used during the last eight years.

Giovanni Trapattoni all but ignored him and O’Neill chooses to use him when he has to or when he feels it’s the “right” match for him.

I really do not understand that thinking.

O’Neill had no choice but to use him in Moldova and look what happened.

I am genuinely baffled that O’Neill and Keane don’t see him as the starting point for the team.

They have put Hoolahan in some sort of bubble which he can only come out of it when they feel that he can do a job for the team.

But I fail to understand why he cannot do the same thing for the team all the time, no matter what the match circumstances are.

From what I have seen of Group D so far, there is no good team. It is a poor standard across the list and on that basis, I would actually be very optimistic about Ireland’s chances.

I’d be even more optimistic if I saw Hoolahan’s name on the teamsheet every time because it means that O’Neill is ready to trust him and this is all about trust. The Ireland manager speaks a lot about tournament football and qualification football and I’m sorry, but I think that’s nonsense.

Remember when Alex Ferguson decided that Manchester United had to play a certain way when they took on the task of winning the Champions League?

It was a disaster and he eventually reverted to doing what his teams did best and won the competition.

Perhaps if he had stuck to that formula from the start, his team might have won the trophy a few more times during his golden era.

The reason I mention this is simple. A manager plays to his team’s strengths and if he departs from that script to suit another agenda, he is lost.

Irish players come hard-wired with passion, commitment and pride in the shirt but there is plenty of talent in the squad and I think, enough to get out of this group if they are allowed play.

I do take the point that the team does have a habit of losing the ball and ground after they score and that there is not much O’Neill can do if a professional footballer pushes an easy ten yard pass into touch, as I saw several players do against Moldova.

But when the mantra from the manager is talking all the time about how tough teams like Moldova and even Gibraltar are, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy and the players fall back into a shell.

O’Neill does this before every game and the accumulation of his comments give the impression that he thinks we will struggle in every game.

In fact, he says as much before every single match - no matter who the opposition is.

That doesn’t say much for his belief in the players he is working with.

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