Sunday 18 February 2018

New role fires Hoolahan up the scoring charts

Norwich is proving to be a happy hunting ground for Wes Hoolahan, writes Seán Ryan

WHAT changes a player from an occasional goalscorer to one whose name appears consistently on the scoresheet? In the case of Norwich City's Wes Hoolahan, who has been scoring goals for fun in recent months, the answer comes on the double -- a new ankle and a new role.

Of course, it's no harm that he is once again playing with a winning team. Ever since his days with Shelbourne, Hoolahan has grown used to winning. So, even though he had two good seasons at Blackpool, when Norwich came calling he decided their prospects of winning something were better, so he moved to East Anglia at the start of last season.

"I was highly regarded at Blackpool," he recalls, "but I thought it was time to move on and play for a bigger club, one that would help me get to play in the Premiership. Of course, things don't always work out as you expect."

He left one Championship club for another, but he didn't bargain for a battle against relegation -- and one which was ultimately decided while he sat frustrated on the sidelines.

"I missed the last seven games of the season after a tackle from behind in the game with Plymouth damaged my ankle ligaments. I had to have an operation, in which they put a rope through the ankle and screws on either side. The rope dissolves, but the screws don't dissolve for three to four years, so I can still feel them, but my ankle is better than before, I feel it's stronger than it was, and I'm playing better."

He pauses, and then adds with his little boy smile: "It's so good I'm thinking of getting the other one done."

When Hoolahan was injured, Norwich were a safe fifth from the bottom, but of the remaining seven games they won only one, sliding into the relegation zone and down to League One.

With crowds of 25,000 every week, fantastic training facilities, and an ambitious manager, Hoolahan liked the atmosphere at Carrow Road from the start. "Then when Glenn Roeder was sacked and things weren't going too well, you still think 'we're not going to be relegated, we're too big a club', but it happened."

So it was back to League One, where he had starred in Blackpool's promotion campaign three seasons ago, and the pre-season omens were good. "We won every game, including Wigan and Crystal Palace, from higher divisions, and then we were brought down to earth when we were beaten 7-1 at home in the league by local rivals Colchester. That shocked everybody. It's hard to explain it, other than it being one of those days."

Shortly after, Hoolahan was serving under his third Norwich manager, and it was a familiar figure, as Paul Lambert was manager of Livingston when Hoolahan made his move there from Shelbourne in January 2006. It was no happy reunion, though, as the former Colchester boss made it clear he was unhappy with his playing staff.

"He was talking about people being on their way out of the club," Hoolahan recalls of those turbulent early season days. "I was included in that, and I was dropped for a few games, while Gary Doherty was put on the transfer list.

"It was a strange one, and obviously I was a bit down, but I worked hard, played for the reserves, scored two goals, and after two games he brought me back and I've started the 15 games since."

His fellow Irishman, Doherty, had to wait a few more games for a recall, but he has helped shore up the defence since and has also contributed on the scoresheet, with four to his credit in recent weeks.

However, it is Hoolahan who is the talk of Norwich, for his 13 goals far surpass his scoring rate at any of his other clubs, and only out-and-out strikers have scored more in League One. "The manager switched me to this new role, in the hole behind the two strikers, Gary Holt and Chris Martin, and they're loving the service I've been laying on for them."

That service comes in different ways. Recent goals laid on involved a cross, a ball slid through for the striker to run on to, and a one-two to put the striker clear. "The manager said the role suits me down to a T, because you need a good knowledge of the game," Hoolahan says. "I'm not normally scoring goals, usually creating them, but in this role I've been reading the situations well, getting into good positions, shooting from outside the box -- and they're going in a lot lately."

Manager Lambert acknowledges that Hoolahan's ability "was never in doubt, but what we did was find a position for him where he could make things happen in the centre of the pitch. He is the one who deserves all the credit, nobody else. He has been unplayable at times, he can make things happen, which is a rare commodity in a game of football these days when you have somebody like that, with that ability.

"He can finish, there's no doubt about it -- he goes by people as if they're not there at times -- he's a very talented footballer. His game awareness and his game knowledge is at the highest level -- he is playing brilliant football."

As a result, Hoolahan was voted Player of the Month in November by the Norwich supporters, and, going into yesterday's game, they were unbeaten in their last 10, having won seven on the trot.

On the promotion battle, he says: "Leeds will be promoted and second place is up for grabs between ourselves, Charlton and Colchester, who are on a decent run, and Huddersfield, who are a very good team."

Looking ahead, Hoolahan hopes his good form will rid him of that one-cap wonder tag. "The move to Norwich was designed to give me a higher profile and improve my chances of adding to my one cap. If I keep scoring goals and doing well, I hope it will happen, but if it does it's a bonus."

Coming on as a sub against Colombia in the last minutes of the game was never going to satisfy the little Dubliner. For him, training with the players was the best bit, he felt comfortable in their company, and wants the chance to show what he can do at that level.

"Yes, I want to play at the highest level. In the Championship I felt comfortable playing on the left wing, but now I want to see how well I'd do there in my new role. That's the next step."

Past Norwich City legends include Limerick's Johnny Gavin, who still holds the club record for most goals, and Andy Townsend, who was first brought to Jack Charlton's attention by the Norwich coaching staff. At 5' 7", Hoolahan is smaller than both Gavin and Townsend, but his classy passing and shooting ability seem destined to add his name to that elite band.

Sunday Independent

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