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Dublin: 7 °C Friday 10 April, 2020

Wes Hoolahan performance highlights the best and worst of Irish football

The Irish team drew 2-2 with Slovakia in last night’s friendly at the Aviva.

Republic of Ireland's Wes Hoolahan and Slovakia's Miroslav Stoch (left) battle for the ball last night.
Republic of Ireland's Wes Hoolahan and Slovakia's Miroslav Stoch (left) battle for the ball last night.
Image: PA Wire/Press Association Images

WES HOOLAHAN’S HIGHLY impressive performance against Slovakia last night simultaneously appeared to vindicate and condemn Irish football.

Only now, it seems, is everyone starting to agree how vital he is to this Irish team, and how vital he should have been for the past decade.

For the 73 minutes he spent on the field, Hoolahan was a joy to watch and delivered a performance reminiscent of David Silva — not my words but those of a neutral observer with plenty of experience of playing top-level football — RTÉ pundit Didi Hamann.

Like all the best technical players, Hoolahan had the courage to constantly show for the ball, while usually making the right decision and the most intelligent pass on the many occasions he received it.

It is hardly a complete coincidence that, with Hoolahan in the side against Slovakia, Ireland had 58% of the possession over the course of the game. Conversely, without Hoolahan for much of the game against the Swiss on Friday, the Boys in Green had just 31% of the ball.

It was no surprise that Hoolahan was consequently named man-of-the-match and by showing the kind of confidence that Martin O’Neill admitted Ireland lacked on Friday night, he has turned himself into one of the side’s most invaluable players — quite simply, no one else in the squad is capable of dictating the play to the same degree as the ex-Shels star, who began the qualifying campaign as somewhat of a bit-part player.

And given his relatively sudden elevation in the past two years, it is easy to forget that for a long time, Hoolahan was quite a divisive figure in Irish football.

Many, of course, constantly campaigned for his inclusion in the side and lamented Giovanni Trapattoni’s ostensible lack of trust in the little Dubliner, who was very much the antithesis of Trap’s general perception of Irish football.

Yet when Hoolahan was excluded from Ireland’s Euro 2012 squad four years ago, the protests weren’t exactly vehement.

Indeed, to some, Hoolahan was somewhat of a joke figure, or perhaps more accurately, those making the case for his inclusion became the subject of ridicule.

The RTÉ panel, and Eamon Dunphy in particular, were often mocked for portraying his absence from the squad as a kind of injustice.

The more Hoolahan didn’t play, skeptics claimed, the better a footballer he came.

Yet, with the benefit of hindsight, it seems fair to suggest that those railing against his consistent absence from past squads have since been vindicated.

Hoolahan was a key player, not just last night, but throughout Ireland’s qualification campaign, with the highlight surely being his man-of-the-match display in the famous 1-0 win over world champions Germany.

Moreover, his influence in the away fixture against Germany was arguably just as significant. Playing against the same side who hammered Trap’s team 6-1 just two years previously, Ireland escaped Gelsenkirchen with an unlikely 1-1 draw.

The Norwich star only played the final 14 minutes of the game in question, but his influence in this short time was palpable. The Dubliner added a greater energy and tempo to the game, and enabled those around him to play with more confidence to boot.

And not only is Hoolahan an excellent player, he is also an important symbolic figure in Irish football. He deconstructs the myth that Ireland are somehow unable to produce technically gifted players that the likes of Spain and Germany are usually lavished with.

Hoolahan’s emergence gives hope to all the small, talented kids who may not have the physique that’s often expected of a footballer.

And while Hoolahan’s talent redeems that much-criticised Irish footballing system to a degree, it also highlights its inadequacies.

It seems highly unlikely that the attacking midfielder has suddenly become a much better player these past two years, so is there a valid reason why he was effectively ostracised from the team during the five years of Trap’s tenure and even before then?

Trap was reportedly paid over a €1million a year to make big decisions, and on reflection, he seems to have gotten at least one important call badly wrong.

And indeed, on the rare occasions Hoolahan was given a chance by the Italian coach, he invariably impressed. Have a look below at his eye-catching highlights package from the 4-0 2013 friendly win over Georgia — very much a classic Hoolahan performance.

Source: Green Scouser/YouTube

But it is unfair to lay all the blame at Trap’s door, or even at Irish football’s door.

Instead, Hoolahan is a victim of British footballing culture, of which Irish football is closely interlinked.

The Norwich man spent the majority of the early part of his career languishing in obscurity. John Giles claimed he recommended him to a Premier League club when he was with Shels, but Hoolahan — in a classically stereotypical fashion — was apparently rejected for being “too small”.

As a result, the former Belvedere schoolboy was left to languish in relative obscurity for many years, gaining rave reviews at lower level and frequently appearing in Football League PFA Team of the Year selections, but never quite doing enough to attract the attention of the big sides.

Wes Hoolahan and Juan Valeron Wes Hoolahan pictured during his early days at Shelbourne playing in a Champions League qualifier against Deportivo. Source: INPHO

Hoolahan eventually did make his Premier League debut, but by then he was already 29, having spent over a decade toiling away in less glamorous surroundings. And even since, Hoolahan has found life somewhat difficult, with not every manager at club level giving the Irish international the freedom to do what he does best and control football matches with his intelligent passing and graceful movements.

The particularly sad aspect of this story is that Hoolahan could surely have achieved so much more. Had a top coach gotten hold of him at a young age, the Dubliner could have developed at the very least into a Premier League regular, rather than a sporadic visitor of England’s top flight.

If Hoolahan was Spanish or Italian, he likely would have been nurtured correctly and genuinely embraced in the way that all the physically slight but technically imposing playmakers on the continent tend to be. But because he is Irish, he has been treated with suspicion at times, and made to really fight for any kind of success in the game.

A valuable lesson needs to be learned from Hoolahan’s troubles getting noticed for the first decade of his career. That a player of his talent has for so long been overlooked and cast aside in favour of inferior footballers is disappointing but hardly surprising.

It reminds me of something Bray’s Polish underage coach Maciej Tarnogrodzki told in an interview last year.

“Ireland have a lot of solid players. There is not enough number 10s and those are the players that win you games. Playing in the final third is not developed here. Here, it’s about being solid, good shapes, defending, counter-attacking — and I’m not saying it’s wrong, you have to have that in the team. But if you really want to make a difference in football, the top teams always have creative players.

“Paul Scholes once said ‘I realised that I wasn’t quick enough and I wasn’t good enough to dribble with the ball, so what I focused on was passing the ball as quick as possible’ and that made him the best midfielder in English football. He was coached that way.

“In Ireland, it doesn’t happen. I usually take those players, but a lot of coaches wouldn’t take them, because they are slower and skinnier. But I see that they have good vision to pass the ball into channels. They are omitted and they do not develop, and when they get to the age of 20, it’s too late.

“It comes from mentality. You have to have coaches who see the game that way. Maybe a lot of coaches don’t see the game that way and coach differently.”

So essentially, in Ireland and indeed Britain to an extent, there is a culture of mistrust when it comes to creative players, and the frequent mistreatment of Wes Hoolahan makes him the perfect symbol of all that is good and bad about the game in this country.

For too long, people focused on what Hoolahan didn’t have — lightning pace, prolific goalscoring ability and a significant physical presence — instead of the alternative virtues he quite clearly possesses. And as a consequence, it feels as if at 33, with an impressive season under his belt at Norwich and a regular spot in the Irish team almost guaranteed, it is only now that he is beginning to reach his potential.

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About the author:

Paul Fennessy

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