| 12.8°C Dublin

The Wes Hoolahan story: A street player who never lost sight of his dream

Close

Wes Hoolahan

Wes Hoolahan

Wes Hoolahan

Nobody who has watched Wes Hoolahan play would be surprised to hear that when he was a young boy he made his way to school with a ball at his feet. Hoolahan is a player some would say belongs to another age, if it wasn't for the fact that the gifts he displays on the field are timeless.

His life has been football since before he could walk. His father Robbie says that as a baby Wesley Hoolahan would kick a balloon around his cot and, when the baby took his first steps, a ball became his companion and rarely left him. "A lot of it is down to my dad," Hoolahan says. "Before I'd go to school, he'd bring me to a park and I'd kick a football with him."

It's Friday afternoon in the team hotel in Portmarnock and Hoolahan has just returned from training with the Ireland squad. He has happily fulfilled the requests of the photographer and chatted casually before the interview begins. This isn't his natural environment. Hoolahan rarely talks to the media and he is uncomfortable trying to explain his talent.

His talent is probably self-explanatory. He was, he says, a "sport billy" growing up. From the cot, to the walk to school, to Belvedere Football Club where his father was involved and young Wesley was a presence from about the age of five, he took a ball wherever he went.

He played all sports in his local youth club - basketball, table tennis, whatever they had - but he was always drawn back to one game, always dreaming of one thing.

His talent bewitched then as it does today but for Wesley it was something that came naturally, if you forgot about all those hours of natural practice, all those hours with the ball at his feet. Football was something he could dream about in those moments when he didn't have a ball at his feet.

Close

Wes Hoolahan and Robbie Keane will hope to link up

Wes Hoolahan and Robbie Keane will hope to link up

SPORTSFILE

Wes Hoolahan and Robbie Keane will hope to link up

His dreams were always the same: what would he do when the ball was at his feet.

When he was growing up in St Mary's Mansions and later Portland Row, where the family moved when he was 10, there was always a game of football. "There were always five-a-sides in Liberty House," he says. "There was always someone there with a ball waiting to play a game. It was great growing up." If not, Wesley would probably have provided it. School was an interruption to those dreams, an unwelcome intervention to his thoughts about football.

"I didn't enjoy school, probably not as much as my mum and dad would have wanted me to. I never thought about school, it was always football."

As soon as school was over, normal service was resumed. "Where's Wesley gone?" he says was the question they asked at home but the answer was usually the same. Football at the youth club, football on the street, football until the sun went down, running home from the youth club at 8.0 in the evening.

Belvedere was the first club where he captured the imagination. He played there from under 7 to under 18 and if he stood out with his talent, there were always concerns.

Those who saw him first at Belvedere remember a "tiny, absolutely tiny" kid, who could do things with a ball most kids could only dream about. Wes had been dreaming about those things too but as he got older, his size became a hindrance.

Close

Ireland's Wes Hoolahan unleashes a shot past Abdul Salan Al Mukhaini of Oman during the friendly at the Aviva. Photo: David Maher / SPORTSFILE

Ireland's Wes Hoolahan unleashes a shot past Abdul Salan Al Mukhaini of Oman during the friendly at the Aviva. Photo: David Maher / SPORTSFILE

SPORTSFILE

Ireland's Wes Hoolahan unleashes a shot past Abdul Salan Al Mukhaini of Oman during the friendly at the Aviva. Photo: David Maher / SPORTSFILE

"At that age, when I was 13, 14, I was very small for my age. You'd see a lot of the big players were going abroad on trials and stuff like that and I never got the opportunity until I was about 16 or 17. Obviously nothing happened but you just keep going and try not to think about it as much, Now, in this era, there are so many. You look at the Barcelona team, the Spain team, they're all very good on the ball and have good technique."

When the trials did arrive, nothing came of them. He went to Sunderland, Leicester, Millwall and Ipswich but heard nothing. "Nobody's ever said to me, 'Wesley you didn't make it at Ipswich because you were too small'. Nobody has said them things. People probably assume that, they probably have said that but I don't know about it."

When others went across to England, he stayed at Belvedere and then did Billy Young's FáS course before Mick Neville brought him to Shels. Hoolahan captivated people again during a time he remembers fondly. He was seen as a footballer in the great tradition and the expectation grew that soon he would be taken away, his talent overriding whatever frailty he was supposed to have.

"Wesley would be lost in the lower divisions where teams kick lumps out of one another," Ireland's then under 21 coach Don Givens said. "In the Premier League, the more skilful players are protected and he could prosper there."

It didn't work out like that. Hoolahan became a folk hero at Shelbourne, central to their great European nights including the scoreless draw with Deportivo la Coruna in 2004. He was full-time with Shels and football was part of a normal lifestyle. But still there was the ambition to get away, although he says now it rarely crossed his mind.

"I was happy in my life here, I was playing every week for Shelbourne, we were in the Champions League, we had a great squad of players. It was an enjoyable time."

That was his life until Paul Lambert picked up the phone and asked him to go to Livingston. Immediately, he noticed a change. "When I was playing in Ireland, it was more of a hobby thing, in that I was enjoying it every week. When you go to the UK, it's a job, you need to win games, you need to be successful and you need to keep your place in the team. It's harder but the rewards are better."

In a dressing room of old pros, he grasped this immediately. "I knew straight away I had to work harder than I had in Ireland."

He did, and things began to happen. From Livingston, he moved to Blackpool, first on loan and then, after a dispute with his previous club, permanently. In 2007, he played at Wembley as Blackpool won promotion to the Championship in the play-offs and in 2008, he joined Norwich City.

Things became tougher, more focused. He was Wes now not Wesley but he still inspired the old feelings. At Norwich, he is viewed with the sense of enchantment familiar to those at Belvedere and Shelbourne. "What is perhaps the greatest privilege in watching Wes Hoolahan play for Norwich City is the knowledge that, long after his time at Carrow Road is over, Canaries fans will be reminiscing about the mercurial Irishman's work in a yellow shirt," the Eastern Daily Press wrote last week.

He had his time in the Premier League and he hopes it will come again. Last season, it looked like he would move to Aston Villa but it didn't happen and it's something he's reluctant to talk about.

He was out for a couple of months this season with an ankle ligament problem. He missed the game in Glasgow but he has returned to fitness as Norwich have moved rapidly up the table. They are now three points off the top in the crazy race for promotion.

Those who know him well think he can play into his 30s which may allow him to finally give a full display of his talents for Ireland.

He was on the bench for Ireland when Givens was caretaker manager for a game in Athens in 2002 but he had to wait until 2008 for his first cap and another four years for his second when he came on against Greece. By then, he was playing in the Premier League, demonstrating the truth of what Givens had said years before but, it would be safe to say, he wouldn't have been Giovanni Trapattoni's kind of player.

"The team he had and the squad he had were doing well," Hoolahan says. "He had his way of playing, 4-4-2, and it probably wouldn't have suited me as much. There was nothing I could do, I just had to wait for my chance."

When Martin O'Neill took over, Hoolahan's time was believed to have come. He started six of O'Neill's first eight games but when the time came to play away in Georgia in the first qualifier, Hoolahan was again on the bench.

"He picks the team to do well and win the game. In Germany or Georgia I didn't play but you look at those results and you can't say anything, he's made the right decision."

If there are those who say he would struggle at international level, Hoolahan disputes it.

He is playing in the Championship which he believes is physically more demanding than international football and he never has any problems.

"There isn't any reason I can't do it at international level and nobody's said I can't. Every time I've put on the green jersey, I've always worked my socks off and done the best for the team."

The squad had a day off on Thursday and Hoolahan went to see his family. He relaxed and caught up with them but, he says, "the game is always in your head".

The game exists in Hoolahan's head and it always has done. He spent the night before today's game going over possible scenarios in his head. It's visualisation and he has always done it, long before it was visualisation, when they were just called dreams.

"It's just something I've always done through my whole career. The day before the game I'll always think of the game, think what I can do in the game, how I can affect something or help others out. If I get the ball in this position, I'll cross it or pass it or score goals. You always dream of scoring goals.

"I've always done that. It just came from dreaming of football, it's something you always do when you're a kid. I think everybody wants to dream about scoring in the FA Cup final, dream about scoring in the Champions League or World Cup. These are just the things you dream of."

He will hope to play tonight, to be involved and add the creativity that Ireland lack when he isn't on the field. There are critical months ahead as Ireland try to reach the European Championships and Norwich City hope to return to the Premier League. He will do the things he has always done, think about the game the way he always has and imagine what he will do with the ball at his feet.

"There's pressure every time you play. I'm a player who needs to do something or score a goal and if not, people think I've had a bad game. That's the pressure which comes with it."

This is football where nobody ever treads softly but these are Wesley Hoolahan's dreams.

Sunday Indo Sport