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How ‘The Irish Messi’ made the difference at the weekend

The midfielder made a telling contribution in the 3-1 victory over Bournemouth.

Wes Hoolahan produced a man-of-the-match performance at the weekend.
Wes Hoolahan produced a man-of-the-match performance at the weekend.
Image: Stephen Pond

WES HOOLAHAN HAS effectively made an entire career out of silencing the critics.

On Off the Ball, John Giles once described how, following a series of impressive performances at Shelbourne as a young player, the Ireland legend recommended Hoolahan to an unnamed Premier League club. Their response is so familiar that it has become a cliché by this stage — Hoolahan was essentially rejected by the club in question for being “too small”.

Hoolahan is not the first and by no means the best player to whom this criticism was levelled against — Roy Keane recalled in his first autobiography that his progress was curtailed at youth level owing to his slow growth.

Even Luka Modric, a player now commonly regarded as one of the world’s best midfielders, was not deemed strong enough to overly impress Arsene Wenger, with the coach once suggesting he didn’t have the necessary physicality to thrive in the Premier League. However, following his signing for Spurs, Modric proceeded to make this theory look foolish, before going on to bigger and better things with Real Madrid.

Yet, unlike Modric, Hoolahan has arguably never overcome this stigma completely. The Irish international will be 34 in May, but he is beginning just his fourth season as a Premier League player.

Until Martin O’Neill took over as manager, the diminutive star was never really in serious contention for a place in the Irish side. He was 25 by the time he played his first season in the Championship, getting there via a route that encompassed the League of Ireland, the Scottish Premier League and League One. It would be five more seasons, by which stage he had turned 29, before he played his first campaign in England’s top flight.

Some people therefore tend to underestimate Hoolahan — when some called for his belated selection in the Irish team, others rolled their eyes while suggesting he was being hopelessly overrated by virtue of his continued absence from the starting XI.

Even Norwich, in the past, have seemingly been somewhat suspicious of this so-called ‘luxury player’. The best spell of Hoolahan’s career arguably came under Paul Lambert at Norwich — it was during this period that the former Shels man was playing integral roles in Norwich victories over Ferguson-era Man United and captaining them to a defeat of Liverpool.

But the man affectionally known by Norwich fans as ‘The Irish Messi’ initially was less valued by Lambert’s predecessors — despite two encouraging seasons in the Premier League in which he racked up 33 appearances in both campaigns. Chris Hughton and Neil Adams picked Hoolahan more sporadically, with the club also refusing to let the player join Lambert at Aston Villa during this period. With Hoolahan invariably ostracised from the team, Norwich struggled and were ultimately relegated back to the Championship in 2013-14.

Some expected Hoolahan and the Canaries to fade into obscurity thereafter. Yet, once again, the Dubliner silenced the doubters, as he regained his first-team spot and went on to play an integral role in Norwich’s return to the Premier League.

Again, there were doubts, however. While lavishing praise on Hoolahan’s performances, two Norwich-based journalists that The42 spoke to were unsure how big a role the Irishman would play if the Canaries got back to the Premier League (they were on the brink of promotion at the time).

Nevertheless, Hoolahan has started all five of Norwich’s Premier League matches so far this season. He is a big reason why the club are sitting in eighth position currently, having registered four assists — more than any other Premier League player.

On Saturday, Hoolahan gave what was surely his most influential display of the campaign so far, registering a goal and an assist as Norwich convincingly beat Bournemouth 3-1. Here’s an in-depth look at his impressive performance…

License to roam

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As is often the case for Ireland, Hoolahan played between the lines in the number 10 role, behind lone striker Cameron Jerome and in front of Norwich’s four-man midfield.

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The Dubliner was consequently given license to roam, turning up on both wings at times and even adopting the role of midfield playmaker when necessary.

Hoolahan was the player expected to make things happen, and he fulfilled this task admirably.

However, it was never going to be an easy afternoon for the ex-Blackpool and Livingston player. Bournemouth had clearly identified him as a threat, and Hoolahan lost the ball early on, with three players chasing him.

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While less confident footballers might go into their shell to an extent as a result of this mishap, Hoolahan — like all good players — continued to show for the ball and consistently tried to influence the play.

He was starting to link up well down the left with Ireland colleague Robbie Brady and on the right with Nathan Redmond.

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Intelligent player

What’s often so impressive about Hoolahan’s play is his decision-making. This is a quality even great players don’t always get right. Steven Gerrard, for instance, has been rightly criticised for always trying to play the ‘Hollywood pass’ at times.

Similarly, other players are accused of a lack of ambition on the ball — one of the main issues with Ireland midfielders Glenn Whelan and James McCarthy is their tendency to play it backwards and sideways, and to refrain from taking risks all too often. Man United, also, have been accused of adopting this risk-free approach of late, most notably by former player Gary Neville.

What makes Hoolahan so lauded at times is his tendency to have the perfect blend of passing. He invariably has the footballing intelligence to realise when it’s necessary to play a killer pass compared with knowing when playing it safe is more appropriate.

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So while he is known for his incisive through passes and instinctual brilliance, the 33-year-old can also be incredibly accurate without sacrificing this creativity. In the playoff final last May, where Norwich secured their place in the Premier League at the expense of Middlesbrough, he famously came away from this high-pressure game with a 100% passing accuracy ratio.

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Adventurous play

In a game in which there wasn’t exactly an abundance of quality on show, Hoolahan’s performance was conspicuous and starkly contrasted with some of the less ambitious play that was evident.

In contrast with others, the 33-year-old always played with his head up and was constantly looking to make things happen, even if it didn’t always quite work out.

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Norwich were undoubtedly the dominant team in the first half, even if Bournemouth managed to create one or two decent chances.

A watching Paul Merson was so impressed that he compared the Canaries to “Barcelona,” and they certainly kept possession well, having 67% of the ball in the opening 15 minutes while retaining a passing accuracy ratio above 80% for most of the game.

Initially, however, Norwich appeared to lack cutting edge, and for all their dominance, found clear-cut chances few and far between.

On the half-hour mark though, Hoolahan and Cameron Jerome gave the Bournemouth defence a warning of what was to come, with the Irishman playing a clever ball through to the striker, who could only find the side-netting on this occasion.

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Hoolahan was also getting under the visitors’ skin, with an ostensible attempt at a dive angering Adam Smith and causing the Bournemouth man to be booked for his reaction.

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Jerome and Hoolahan double team

The combo of Hoolahan and Jerome continued to pose a threat, but Bournemouth, initially at least, seemed capable of handling the probing two-man attack.

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Nonetheless, the duo’s efforts paid off on 34 minutes. Hoolahan showed a bit of brilliance to nutmeg his man before having the composure to pick out the striker, who for his part, finished excellently after demonstrating excellent movement in the build-up.

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It was Hoolahan’s fourth assist of the season, and if himself and Jerome can continue to work so well together, Norwich surely won’t have to worry about the prospect of relegation come the end of the season.

Too lightweight?

Hoolahan is routinely criticised for his lack of physicality. Managers at both club and international level have been at times unwilling to risk him in big games, particularly away fixtures, when perceived defensive shortcomings supposedly outweigh the benefits of his attacking prowess.

And while there were a few occasions where Hoolahan conceded possession cheaply, he always showed good determination to win it back and didn’t shy away from making tackles in general.

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Yes, Hoolahan is unusually small in stature by Premier League league standards, but appearances can be deceptive. The former Belvedere man is stronger than he looks and is well capable of putting a tackle in and working hard off the ball. At 33, Alex Neil will probably have to rest him at times this season, but apart from his age, there are few downsides to the veteran star’s game.

A potent counter-attacking weapon

Hoolahan continued where he left off in the second half, consistently producing positive play, dribbling forward at will and giving the away defence no shortage of nervous moments.

Bournemouth were pushing up in search of an equaliser after the break, which meant that Hoolahan and the other Norwich attackers had more space to run into in the visitors’ final third. He showed hesitance when given an initial opportunity early in the second period, and the attack petered out, but didn’t making the same mistake on the second occasion, firing an unstoppable shot into the corner of the net to claim his first goal of the season.

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goal

Norwich were well in control at this stage and threatening to run riot, as they continually exposed their opponents on the counter-attack.

Shortly after the second goal, Hoolahan robbed fellow Irishman Eunan O’Kane (who was substituted soon after) of possession and almost set up Jerome for another chance.

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Hoolahan posed a constant threat in that number 10 position, rarely giving the Bournemouth defence a moment’s rest, even as Norwich began to sit back and hold onto their 2-0 lead.

The playmaker continued to link the attack up nicely, while also putting in an excellent shift off the ball, pressing the visitors as intensively as any other Norwich player

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He also provided a steadying influence, picking out the right passes and holding onto possession well, as the Bournemouth players chased the ball in vain.

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Substitution

After Norwich scored again through debutant Matt Jarvis, they led 3-0 and the game looked safe.

The tiring Ireland international was consequently replaced by Graham Dorrans and given a well-deserved standing ovation by the home support, who were no doubt appreciative of the vital contribution Hoolahan made to the game.

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Norwich conceded in his absence, with Steve Cook grabbing a consolation goal, while they could have added to their lead as well, with new Canaries striker Dieumerci Mbokani in particular looking lively after being introduced to the action late on.

Yet in truth, the game was all but over well before Hoolahan left the field, as Norwich coasted to a relatively comfortable win in the final 20 minutes.

Conclusion

Nearly everyone agreed that Hoolahan played exceptionally on Saturday. Manager Alex Neil described the player’s performance as “fantastic,” adding:

“He is capable of that. He isn’t going to always have days when he has that much influence but when he does he is a joy to watch. He is a special player and he has been excellent since I came here.

“I think his performance today was terrific, he has been a key figure in my team, I like creative players — Nathan Redmond has probably played his best football over the last six months, that type of player has a place in my team but they have to put the work-rate in as well.”

Hoolahan and Norwich still have a long way to go in the season, of course. Bournemouth at home is ostensibly one of the easiest matches the Canaries will play during the 2015-16 campaign.

However, it’s far from the only match in which the 33-year-old has caught the eye, and both Norwich and Ireland fans will hope he maintains this superb form for the rest of the season, or at least for the Irish team’s vital upcoming Euro 2016 qualifiers against Germany and Poland in October.

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About the author:

Paul Fennessy

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