Thursday 20 September 2018

'How big is his mother?' The teenage rejections that made a man of Wes Hoolahan

Wes Hoolahan collecting a Player of the Month award in 2004 during his
time with Shelbourne. Photo: Sportsfile
Wes Hoolahan collecting a Player of the Month award in 2004 during his time with Shelbourne. Photo: Sportsfile
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

The story of Wes Hoolahan might always be told with a tinge of regret. A natural talent who was passed over by experienced football men incapable of looking beyond his size.

Two of his childhood mentors, Belvedere's Gerry Smullen and Matt Halpin, have stories that shine a light on why it took so long for Hoolahan's ability to be given an appropriate stage.

Halpin remembers standing on the sideline at Fairview Park, where he was approached by respected Sunderland talent spotter Bryan 'Pop' Robson who had reservations about Hoolahan's height.

"How big is his mother?" Robson asked. "I wasn't sure why he was asking," says Halpin, "He said, 'You never see a young fella smaller than his mother.'"

The Belvedere coach tried to offer positive assurances, but sensed scepticism. Sunderland signed Hoolahan's team-mate Finbar Lynch instead.

Smullen, who had managed Hoolahan from U-12 level, has his own experience of the mindset. He remembers an Easter trip to England with a Belvedere U-16 side, where the highlight was a Hoolahan-inspired five-goal thrashing of Millwall.

Management

"During their game, their management kept running up to us and asking, 'how old is this fella?" recalls Smullen.

"They were thinking he might have been a year or two younger than the others. That would have got them excited. But when they heard he was in the same age bracket as everyone else, they weren't as interested."

That was the game. Halpin was familiar with the mindset over the water, that they were looking for players with the three As - attitude, athleticism and ability.

He's convinced that they honed in too much on the athlete. Several of Hoolahan's team-mates were offered opportunities across the water, but they had already peaked.

'Weso' was left behind, but the star player would eventually make it.

His departure from Norwich last weekend, which followed on from the tributes that greeted his Irish retirement in February, reflect the impact that he made at Premier League, Championship and international level.

Speak to people who know him well, however, and they instantly think of moments from his formative days when they were in on the secret.

Smullen explains that, while Hoolahan was an inner-city, street footballer, a factor in the development of his dribbling skills was the absence of the strength to swing in a cross.

"He started as an outside left and was so, so small that he had to hold on to the ball because he couldn't cross it," he laughs.

"When he got to U-15, he did have that strength, but he had the close control which meant he would always go around three or four players."

Halpin remains on good terms with the Hoolahan family and speaks regularly to his father, Robbie, a community mini-bus driver who used to help ferry the team to games.

He attended Hoolahan's wedding and regales the tale of a family holiday to Spain.

Young Wes had a complexion which meant he tanned easily. In the complex where the tourists were staying, he managed to locate a football pitch where some other kids were playing ball and headed off wearing a Barcelona jersey.

Later in the day, the Hoolahans got chatting to some other holidaymakers who said they'd just been down watching the kids at work.

"And one of them said, 'You'd want to see this little Spanish fella with the Barcelona jersey'," laughs Halpin. "It was Weso!"

There's a certain irony in the tale. England's hesitancy was Shelbourne's opportunity. They inherited a top-class prospect.

"If he was Spanish, people would be saying he was like (Andres) Iniesta," says former Shels captain and current manager Owen Heary.

"We missed a big opportunity with Weso because of people saying how small he was, and that he was only playing in the League of Ireland.

"You hope you don't miss another good young fella but in this country we've a habit of doing it. It's only later in life they get the chance.

"When he came up to us first, the gear was hanging off him. And you're looking at him thinking, 'I'll go in and give the new lad a kick and show them what it's about. But he had the head down and was dropping shoulders.

"At the start, other teams were making that mistake, thinking this is only a kid coming on. But they couldn't get near him when they tried to stop him."

Mick Neville was the Shelbourne U-19 coach who was tasked with spotting Belvedere talent through a relationship the clubs had struck up.

"He was such a brilliant player," says Neville, who is now with Ireland's U19 set-up.

"You just let him loose. He could do things that other players couldn't do. Sometimes, you would think he'd hit a bad pass, but it was because he was a move ahead of everyone else and they didn't anticipate it."

His manager, Pat Fenlon, did regularly play Hoolahan on the wing as he sought to find the best use of his ability in a physical league.

"We were trying to find an area for him to use his ability," he explained. "The one thing with Wesley is that he didn't fear anything.

"You talk about Deportivo La Coruna (final Champions League qualifier in 2004). It didn't faze Wes. He could have been playing UCD. He just wanted to get on the ball.

"In fairness to Deportivo, they realised that in the away leg and let him get on it in certain areas and they pounced on him. But he would be brave and keep going back for it."

That high-profile game raised his standing at home, but he would not leave Ireland for another 16 months when he joined Scottish club Livingston.

"We were scratching our heads," says Heary. "Because we would have fancied ourselves to beat Livingston."

Caretaker

He wonders if it might have happened earlier for Hoolahan if caretaker boss Don Givens had played the U-21 international in a senior friendly in Greece in 2002. He was left on the bench.

It is true that Hoolahan was a homebird who was quite happy with Shels, and there were life changes on his journey to Norwich via Blackpool.

"He did get physically stronger," Neville says. "He's thin and lean now. He became a model pro. But it still kills me that when he started playing for Ireland, he was a surprise to people when we always knew what he could do. And he could have done it at any level."

The doubters were proved wrong, eventually. Smullen speaks of his continued pride, and his Euro 2016 highs were sweet vindication for those who were mystified it took so long.

"He should have got double the caps he did," says Neville. "At the end, it was like everyone had finally woken up."

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