Thursday 14 December 2017

Little bit of class could make huge difference

Aidan O'Hara

Aidan O'Hara

THE feel-good factor only lasted a few hours. When Darron Gibson withdrew from Ireland's friendly against Serbia in August, the announcement that Wes Hoolahan was to be called up as his replacement brought a smile to the faces of most football supporters in the country. Then, hours later, a second press release revealed that Hoolahan had been forced to withdraw because of an Achilles problem.

There were question marks about why it wasn't known that Hoolahan was injured before an announcement of the call-up was made public but, mostly, there was just gloom that a chance had been missed. And now it seems like that opportunity for him to establish himself in an Ireland shirt won't be coming around again.

Saturday's Premier League action was a good day for the little men who, traditionally, have been distrusted in the bustling and bruising world of English football. It started with David Silva pulling the strings for Manchester City against Sunderland, then onto Juan Mata, Oscar and Eden Hazard setting Stamford Bridge alight, and concluded with a masterclass from Arsenal's Santi Cazorla at Upton Park.

All five are just about tall enough to see over the corner flag but, as Arsene Wenger said about Cazorla, anybody who loves football should love watching them. It's stretching things to claim that Hoolahan is in that calibre, but relative to his competition in the Ireland squad, he is not far off.

Mata and Cazorla are often kept out of the Spanish national team by Silva, Andres Iniesta and Xavi. Hoolahan is being kept out by Glenn Whelan, Keith Andrews and Andy Keogh as well as a system of play that's as rigid as the Berlin Wall. If Giovanni Trapattoni wanted to look at Hoolahan's failings, he could find them in Chelsea's third goal when he lost possession too easily to Mata, or when Frank Lampard tackled him late on and he failed to track Lampard's subsequent run.

If he felt like adding to a case for the prosecution against some others, Trapattoni could also have seen James McClean and John O'Shea failing to do enough to prevent Sergio Aguero's goal for City or Seamus Coleman being skinned by Shaun Maloney for Wigan's opener against Everton. But at some point, particularly with attacking players, the focus must move away from what they can't do and focus on what they can.

In a game where Norwich enjoyed limited amounts of possession -- as Ireland will against Germany -- Hoolahan had 22 successful passes out of 25. The value of passing percentages is often overplayed, but one of those passes was vital to Grant Holt's opening goal, while two others set up chances for Holt and Alexander Tettey. For a team like Norwich to create three excellent chances at the home of the Champions League holders is striking; for one player to be at the heart of all three makes it all the more remarkable.

Yet it's not just Trapattoni who has ignored Hoolahan -- and it's an indictment of the dozens of clubs that have watched him over the years that nobody took a chance mainly because of his size. From a child in Fairview Park with Belvedere, Hoolahan has been in the top four or five most technically gifted players on any pitch he has played on and it's only against the best teams in the Premier League that he moves further down the chart.

Debacle

Matches in Fairview tend to be afflicted by bobbly pitches and a wind that seems to blow even on the finest summer's day, so for Hoolahan to stand out as being such a technically gifted teenager often felt like seeing if Frankel could still look good on Laytown beach.

After the Euro 2012 debacle, Hoolahan was name-checked in some quarters as being "one for the future" by some who failed to check his birthday. Hoolahan turns 31 next May and is less than two years younger than Robbie Keane. It says something about what British and Irish football often looks for in a player that it was Livingston who were the first team to bring him to Britain after a successful spell at Shelbourne before Blackpool finally brought him into League One.

Yet from Irish youth internationals to his appearances against Deportivo La Coruna for Shelbourne and onto being named in League One and Championship teams of the season and now in the Premier League, Hoolahan has shown his ability to rise to whatever challenge faces him.

He could fit into a 4-4-2 system by dropping back to create a five-man midfield when Ireland don't have the ball but, unlike the other players Trapattoni has used in that role, Hoolahan has the ability to maintain and link possession. Ten years ago, Hoolahan was an unused substitute in Ireland's friendly against Greece and, despite his blossoming club career, it seems that his international prospects haven't improved since.

But while it may be too late for Hoolahan, the true test of how much Irish football wants to change will come when the next diminutive but technically brilliant player comes on the radar. The Spanish national team, Barcelona and others have proven that a little man can take teams a long way.

Unfortunately, it's unlikely to be under this manager that Ireland learns the same lesson.

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