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After years of neglect, is Irish football still reluctant to embrace the gifts of Wes Hoolahan?

The Norwich star impressed in recent friendly games against Mexico and Uruguay.

Wes Hoolahan has impressed for Ireland of late, though doubts remain as to whether he will start against Austria on Sunday.
Wes Hoolahan has impressed for Ireland of late, though doubts remain as to whether he will start against Austria on Sunday.
Image: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

THERE WAS A noticeable improvement in the quality of Ireland’s performance in the second half against Uruguay on Sunday, and it was partially thanks to the introduction of one man.

In the previous 45 minutes, the Boys in Green had invariably looked a little cumbersome and short of ideas in the final third.

Aside from Jon Walters’ brilliant bolt from nowhere, Ireland’s attack failed to trouble Uruguay unduly except for the occasional set piece or dangerous Robbie Brady delivery from deep.

The Uruguay defence looked relatively comfortable, so much so that they completely sat off the Stoke star for the opening goal.

Wes Hoolahan’s half-time introduction changed the game, however. He assisted for Ireland’s second goal and had a hand in the third. He also should have grabbed a second assist for a fourth goal, but James McClean didn’t get his shot away quickly enough when through on goal after Hoolahan’s inch-perfect pass.

Having looked so influential in 45 minutes, many felt the Norwich star was a shoe-in to start against Austria in the vital World Cup qualifier on Sunday.

Yet not according to the Eir Sport panel, who suggested that Harry Arter and not Hoolahan should feature at the Aviva this weekend.

But Arter is a much different type of player to Hoolahan. The Bournemouth star is a solid midfielder, more in the mould of James McCarthy, who likes to tackle rather than primarily being used to open defences up in the manner that the Dubliner does.

Furthermore, there is little evidence to suggest the pair cannot play in the same team. Indeed, they did, when Ireland secured a memorable away win against Austria in Vienna last November.

Arter could conceivably start in place of Glenn Whelan as he performs a relatively similar role to the Stoke star while offering greater mobility and technical prowess, even if — as the Bournemouth man pointed out today — he is not as much of a sitter as his Stoke counterpart. O’Neill, however, is often thought of as a conservative coach, so there is no guarantee Hoolahan will feature against Marcel Koller’s men.

Yet what seems certain is that Ireland pose much more of a goal threat with the 35-year-old in the team. Think of some of the most memorable moments in Irish soccer in recent months and Hoolahan was to the fore — the goal against Sweden, an assist against Italy, and an assist against Austria. He also created two of the strikes in the defeat of Moldova back in October.

Furthermore, it is no coincidence that the two games Ireland have failed to prevail in this qualifying campaign — the 2-2 draw with Serbia and the 0-0 stalemate against Wales — have come without the ex-Blackpool player in the team, while the one competitive victory the Boys in Green have managed in the absence of Hoolahan during this period was a highly unconvincing 1-0 win at home to Georgia.

Even in the Mexico match last Thursday, Ireland found themselves 3-0 down and overly reliant on route-one tactics until Hoolahan entered the action, when there was a relative improvement and a goal to boot.

It was also telling that Ireland’s three contenders from Goal of the Year back at the FAI awards in March were all either scored or assisted by Hoolahan.

The experienced midfielder, who has 37 caps for his country, brings a different dimension and some much-needed edge to the Irish attack, even if his perpetual risk-taking inevitably means not everything he tries comes off and possession is sometimes lost owing to an ineptly executed pass or unsuccessful dribble.

In addition, at 35, Hoolahan has shown no significant signs of his powers waning considerably — he was named Norwich’s Player of the Season recently.

Not starting him against Austria would be a big gamble, even if he could conceivably make a considerable impact as a substitute, as has been the case in the recent friendly matches.

Moreover, casting him aside for what is probably the team’s most important match of the campaign so far would arguably undermine Ireland’s underage coaching philosophy. For years, the message from the FAI is that Ireland want to develop players who love the ball and are technically accomplished. By leaving out the individual in the national side who best emulates these ideals, the association’s words ring hollow to a degree.

After Hoolahan was effectively ostracised from the team during the Giovanni Trapattoni era, the Boys in Green should not make the same mistake of overlooking him again.

Martin O’Neill, to his credit, has been more open to playing Hoolahan than his Italian predecessor, though there are signs that he remains reluctant to unequivocally embrace the former Shels midfielder, having started him on the bench for important matches in the past.

There is a suspicion that Hoolahan is a luxury player owing to his small stature, but it is hard to think of an occasion at international level where this supposed flaw has been definitively exposed.

When one of the best attacking sides in the world, Germany, came to the Aviva Stadium for a Euro 2016 qualifier, Ireland kept a clean sheet, while Hoolahan started and was named man-of-the-match.

So to play the veteran star from the beginning on Sunday is hardly a risk — if anything, the opposite is true given Ireland’s patchy record without the man known affectionately as ‘Wessi’.

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About the author:

Paul Fennessy

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