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Dublin: 0°C Friday 16 April 2021

'Wes Hoolahan is a player who's always divided fans -- a lot of them see him as messianic'

Two regular Norwich watchers tell The42 about the Ireland player’s new lease of life at club level.

Wes Hoolahan has been in terrific form at club level recently.
Wes Hoolahan has been in terrific form at club level recently.
Image: Donall Farmer/INPHO

AMONG IRELAND FANS at least, Wes Hoolahan is a highly divisive figure. The ex-Shelbourne midfielder has as many doubters as he has admirers.

In his rare enough appearances at international level, Hoolahan has shown glimpses of brilliance — for example, his accomplished display during a Craven Cottage friendly against Italy last summer, or his cameo role in Ireland’s unexpected 1-1 draw away to world champions Germany back in October.

There is no doubting that Hoolahan offers the type of technical ability and creativity that Irish footballers are invariably accused of lacking. Of the players currently available, his ability to open up an opposition defence and produce a moment of magic is perhaps rivalled only by Andy Reid — another footballer who tends to split fans down the middle.

One of the biggest criticisms of Hoolahan from Irish fans though, has been his lack of recent success with Norwich. Last season, his appearances in the Canaries’ first team were sporadic at best, despite the club being dragged into an ultimately unsuccessful battle against relegation.

Why, it was often asked, should Ireland pick Hoolahan, if he wasn’t even good enough to play regularly for one of the Premier League’s worst sides?

Moreover, managers continually appear to share these reservations, with both Giovanni Trapattoni and Martin O’Neill (so far, at least) reluctant to play the midfielder on a regular basis. For someone of Hoolahan’s undoubted talent, 17 caps (many of which have been acquired from the bench) at this stage of his career is a less-than-satisfactory return.

And following Norwich’s relegation to the Championship, many suspected Hoolahan’s days at Carrow Road were numbered. Since January 2014, he was rumoured to want out of the club, amid interest from Aston Villa, and with both Neil Adams and Chris Hughton reluctant to play him during their respective managerial spells with the Canaries, a departure seemed inevitable sooner rather than later.

Yet the situation is looking far more positive for the 32-year-old midfielder all of a sudden. Since Alex Neil has taken over as Norwich boss, Hoolahan has emerged from semi-obscurity and flourished.

The Dubliner is starting regularly again for the Championship club, who currently sit just three points off leaders Bournemouth in fourth, and he scored in their recent 3-1 win over Nottingham Forest — hence, no longer can critics cite unconvincing club form as a reason for his exclusion at international level.

Nevertheless, Robin Sainty, chairman of the Canaries Trust, says that similarly to the Ireland fans, some Norwich supporters have reservations about Hoolahan despite his obvious talent.

“Wes Hoolahan is a player who’s always divided fans,” he says. “A lot of them see him as messianic and others think he’s a bit hit and miss.

“But over the last two months, he’s hit an absolute purple patch of form, where he’s been a match-winner game after game. I don’t think I’ve seen him play this consistently well for probably four or five years.”

Sainty also feels that the freedom given to Hoolahan, since Neil took over as manager, has had a positive influence on the Ireland international’s game.

“I think it’s to do with the way the new manager is dealing with him. The previous two managers had Wes in and out of the side, they tended to play him out on the left, which doesn’t really work.

“The new manager is allowing him to play just off the lone striker, giving him full reign to be an attacking player, who doesn’t have to worry too much about defensive responsibilities — and I think that’s got the best out of him.”

Source: Norwich City TV/YouTube

He continues: “Wes is one of these people who, when he’s on song, he’s absolutely fantastic, and I don’t think a lot of people would argue with that.

“When he’s not on his game, he can look very lightweight, he can give the ball away in dangerous areas, he can be very inconsistent, and I think that’s what causes the divide [in opinion on him].”

And as good as Hoolahan has often been this season, there are still doubts about whether he has the ability to cope in certain circumstances.

“There’s a school of thought among the Norwich fans that you should play Wes all the time because he’s going to win games for you,” Sainty explains. “There’s another school of thought that you should play Wes in certain games, but in others, he could be a liability.

“He’s 32 now. I think the way he’s playing, you’d say he’s got a good couple of seasons in him at Championship level.

“But what’s up in the air is if Norwich go up, whether at 33 or 34, he could cut it in the Premier League. He had indifferent form when we were in the Premier League before, and he suffered because he was in and out of the side.”

Paddy Davitt, chief Norwich FC writer for the Eastern Daily Press, agrees that Hoolahan has been in excellent form of late.

The Irish star has now made 243 appearances in total for Norwich, and Davitt feels that his display last weekend against Nottingham Forest (see video above) was “by common consent, one of his best,” adding that “it’s almost like a Renaissance period for him”.

“Like many of the current Spanish players, he’s really good in tight spaces, he’s got the vision and intelligence. He was absolutely top drawer [last weekend]. He created the first goal and he took the penalty for the third goal as well.

“It kind of topped off a really good period for him, after the new manager came in. He’s more or less been saying that he’s undroppable at the moment, so it looks like Hoolahan is one of the first names on the teamsheet.

“In the Premier League, he didn’t quite put his stamp on it, and there was a feeling among the fans that his best days were over. But this past season, he’s firmly re-established himself. He’s the go-to man, he just has the x factor really in that Norwich squad.”

However, like Sainty, Davitt feels that Hoolahan may struggle to retain his place in the side should Norwich gain promotion to the Premier League.

“As well as he’s playing right now, you have to put the caveat in that he’s operating at the top end of the Championship. And I think, most rival managers would agree that Norwich have the best squad by a country mile in this division at the minute. They only lost the likes of Robert Snodgrass, Leroy Fer and Ricky van Wolfswinkel, so take those three out and they’ve kept the majority.

Source: mrjudderman/YouTube

“He wasn’t quite as dominant in the Premier League. At this level, Norwich, with the quality they’ve got, they tend to dominate games. They have a lot of the ball and that is Wes Hoolahan all over. If you need someone to unlock a tight defence, he’s your man.

“The mindset in the Premier League is different, and I think most people would agree that Wes, without the ball, doesn’t contribute a lot to the side. He’s not the type who’s going to track back and put tackles in. Physically, that’s not what he’s built to do.

“So if Norwich get back into the Premier League, he wouldn’t be the first name on the teamsheet because the way they go about games would have to change. So I think he’d be more of a squad player if they went back up.”

Therefore, with all that in mind, is Hoolahan capable of making an impact at international level, against sides of the calibre of Germany and Poland?

“He’s certainly got the ability to do it [at international level], despite the handicaps that he has — one of which is that he’s not particularly quick, and another is that he’s painfully left footed,” Sainty says. “There are times when you think he’s in a complete blind alley, but he gets out. And he can do that at international level — it really comes down to what the set-up is around him.

“If you’re relying on Wes to do his fair share of defensive work, while he’ll approach it manfully, defending isn’t really part of his game.

“If you give him a free role to get in behind the striker or strikers, that’s where he’s really effective. So it comes down to how the manager uses him.

“Wes’ natural inclination is to go and get on the ball, wherever the ball is. If you try to play him in a rigid system where he’s out on the left all the time, he’s going to ruin your system, because he’s going to go towards the ball. So you have to adapt the system to the way that Wes plays.”

Davitt agrees with this assessment.

“If Ireland were to put defensive midfielders behind him, then I’d think he could influence games at international level.

“When Spain were dominant, they had the Iniestas and the Xavis — quality technicians with the ability to create. And I’m not putting him in that bracket, because they’re world-class operators, but he is that mould of player.

“There is a bit more time on the ball at international level, so I think he can do a job, but Ireland would need to have protection. If you tried to play him in a four, he probably wouldn’t have much of an influence on the game.”

Source: WhitiesHomeOfSport/YouTube

In addition, having been at the club since moving there from Blackpool in 2008 during Glenn Roeder’s tenure as Norwich manager, Hoolahan is now their longest-serving player.

And the diminutive midfielder has experienced plenty of success ever since. He managed 14 goals in 42 matches as the club won the League One title in 2009, before scoring 10 times in 42 appearances during their promotion to the Premier League the following year.

Consequently, Hoolahan is likely to retain a special place in Norwich fans’ hearts, irrespective of what happens between now and the end of his career.

“Going back to the 50s and 60s, we have some pretty long-serving players, but Wes is going to have a good record for the modern game, where players tend not to stay at one club for long,” Sainty says. “I think he’s going to be a shoe-in for the Norwich hall of fame, when he does either retire or leave.”

“He’s a player that fans love, because when he gets the ball, you think that something’s going to happen,” Davitt adds. “And those types of players are increasingly rare in the modern game. And I think there’s no question that when he does move on, he’ll be rightly regarded as one of Norwich’s best-ever players.”

What do you think? Should Hoolahan start against Poland this evening?

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Paul Fennessy

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