Wednesday 13 December 2017

What more does Wes Hoolahan have to do to win over Trap?

Wes Hoolahan made an impression when he came on as substitute against Poland on Wednesday scoring Ireland's second goal
Wes Hoolahan made an impression when he came on as substitute against Poland on Wednesday scoring Ireland's second goal

Dan McDonnell

"THERE is only one ball," stresses Giovanni Trapattoni, reverting to the stating of the obvious in an attempt to make his philosophy clear.

What follows is a statement which kicks off by giving an insight into his exclusion of Wes Hoolahan for so long but finishes with the main reason why the chorus of voices calling for the Norwich playmaker's promotion to Ireland's starting XI is growing louder.

"When the opponent has the ball then we need to get it," he says. "When we have the ball we play."

There's no doubt that his Irish squad features plenty of hard workers who are capable of seizing the ball.

The problem is that they often end up giving it straight back to an opposition shirt. If the Italian really wants his team to 'play', then the plan should include Hoolahan because there is nobody else in the squad that possesses his brand of football intelligence. He was born to play.

Here's the irony. In Wednesday's defeat of Poland, the man that everyone wanted to see linked well with a player who is often held up as a symbol of all that is wrong with the Trapattoni regime.

Paul Green deserves credit for his contribution to the improved post-interval display.

On more than one occasion, he fulfilled the basic requirement of the Trap doctrine quoted above. He won the ball. From the hour mark onwards, the midfield was boosted by the extra support of the diminutive Hoolahan, who instantly knew what to do with it.

A fresh Jeff Hendrick added to the formula and suddenly Ireland possessed strength in an area where the outnumbered Glenn Whelan and James McCarthy had earlier been overrun.

Trapattoni is used to large chunks of his press conference being taken over by discussion of the latest cause celebre. He managed to reference Lee Carsley again yesterday, recalling a time when the absence of the now-retired midfielder was briefly a talking point. A reference to 'Andy' presumably referred to Andy Reid, whose exile hung over the first year of his tenure.

The call for Hoolahan is not a media-driven campaign, however, although there is unquestionably a romantic element to the tale of the natural talent who has finally reached his destiny after years of being passed over for taller, bulkier inferiors.

On Wednesday night, the 'football people' spoke incredulously. Ex-internationals Kevin Kilbane, Niall Quinn and Ray Houghton all pointed out the obvious, the subtlety which Hoolahan added to a team which persevered through the first half with a one-dimensional approach, pumping long balls towards Conor Sammon, a 6ft 2ins front man who is actually not particularly good in the air.

He is stronger in other areas, but it appears that Trapattoni thinks his presence and the chaos it is capable of causing is preferable to giving Hoolahan a prominent role in the group-defining trip to Sweden.

At every level of football, a guy sitting on the subs bench must ask himself what more he needs to do to avoid becoming a spectator. Yet it seems there is nothing more that Hoolahan can do other than defy science and wake up this morning four inches taller.

Trapattoni has conceded that he should have involved the Belvedere product before now, but he qualifies the humility by arguing that nobody can be sure that his side would have reached Euro 2012 with the 30-year-old roaming between the lines.

Robbie Keane – who has reason to be nervous about his own standing, with the gaffer musing about tackling Stockholm with two physical attackers – has attempted to function as a 'No 10' but he is at his best feeding off the scraps of a big man's endeavour. He is a poacher; Hoolahan is a creator. A purist would find room for both.

Trapattoni, on the other hand, explains his reluctance to come around to Hoolahan because he reckoned that James McCarthy was an option to provide the link between midfield and attack, when the Glaswegian has spent the majority of his career as a more traditional engine room operator.

"We never lost sight of Hoolahan because he is a very talented player," he insisted. "We also wanted to bring in younger players and we have Robbie Brady and McCarthy. Hoolahan is one of the best between two lines. I thought this position was there also for James McCarthy. James has all the quality. Maybe we overlooked that side of play. But at the same time we achieved the play-offs twice."

"That is our system. I said also yesterday I will not give the impression to Sweden that we fear them," he continued, insinuating that the hosts might somehow view it as a sign of timidity if Ireland travelled with a lone striker.

"We play with two strikers. Wes in his club plays behind a striker. That is the situation. But in this moment, we can start with two strikers."

A bizarre tangent followed – or a routine diversion in Trapworld – where he delivered a lengthy soliloquy on the merits of possessing a winning attitude. It was in the midst of the Hoolahan section, and it was unclear if he was inferring that the subject didn't have it.

"We need winning players," he said. "You like show players, but we need the result. In my life, I had great players – Boniek and Platini – but you need strong teams and strong players.

"Victory is our philosophy. It has to be also in Ireland.

"We were tense in the first half on Wednesday. I expect and I am awaiting for more authority and personality to be shown on the pitch. We showed it last night (in the second half) so it was a very positive game from that point of view."

The disappointing news for the Hoolahan backers is that Trapattoni speaks as though that authority and personality is inextricably linked with the aggression of a battering ram. 'Wessi' has personality in abundance, and the confidence to try something that others simply do not see.

Alas, Trapattoni decided a long time ago that Ireland's players were so limited that pursuing a direct strategy was the pragmatic call. Hoolahan has developed into the option that can open the window to a different way.

It is nonsensical to suggest that finding room for him in Sweden could be interpreted by the hosts as a sign that Ireland are shaking in their boots. The real issue here is Trapattoni's fear of a player with the ability to produce the unpredictable.

Irish Independent

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