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'Wes is coming up to 35. I have to see how long he can last in games'

Martin O’Neill has suggested that he must use the talented midfielder somewhat sparingly.

Wes Hoolahan has been a key player for Ireland under Martin O'Neill.
Wes Hoolahan has been a key player for Ireland under Martin O'Neill.
Image: PA Archive/PA Images

AT THE START of the 2018 World Cup qualifying campaign, it looked as if Wes Hoolahan might have to make do with a more peripheral role in the Irish team than he had been used to in previous months.

Having started against Sweden and Belgium at the Euros, the Norwich star had to be content with substitute appearances in subsequent games against both Italy and France.

Moreover, in the opening two World Cup qualifiers away to Serbia and home against Georgia, Hoolahan did not play a minute of action.

It was only against Moldova, with Robbie Brady and Jeff Hendrick unavailable, that O’Neill was able to accommodate Hoolahan in his side again.

The Dubliner played an integral role in two of Ireland’s goals in Chișinău that night, while he also produced an immaculate through ball for James McClean’s winner in Vienna last Saturday, after retaining his place in the starting XI.

Speaking yesterday, O’Neill was unwilling to give an unequivocal response when asked if Hoolahan would be an automatic starter from this point on in the qualification campaign.

But the Derry native emphasised that he played Hoolahan more than previous Ireland managers, while hinting that his age may prevent the former Shelbourne midfielder from starting every match when the qualifying campaign reaches its climax in 2017.

I don’t know (if he’ll start every game)… Number one; I think I have picked Wes Hoolahan more than anybody else has ever picked Wes Hoolahan,” O’Neill told reporters at the launch of the SPAR FAI Primary School 5s Programme in Aviva Stadium yesterday.

“And then there was talk about Wes and Harry Arter playing together. This was the first time that Harry Arter had a chance to play competitive football for us.

And then, is there a chance of playing Wes away from home? There’s still always question marks about players. There are certain things that you do need at top-class football and one is, and actually for the most part, you need a bit of physical strength.

“Sometimes you might think that Wes can be a bit fragile in the sense of that. He’s a really fine player, absolutely, but I’ve played him in a lot of games.

In the second week of January, I will really start to get my mind around the Wales game; about how we approach it.

“I can’t really, until the players are actually with you. We can do other things. We can look at Wales. We can look at what they can do.

I could’ve made some changes in the game against Italy after we played two consecutive games. Wes, although he looks very, very young and it is great to have that so that when he’s 60, he will look 40, but I have to also look at him.

“Wes is coming up to 35 years of age. I have to see how long he can last in games. There are matches where you think, well you start Wes because it would be great to get going. Or, do you think that he could make an impact in a tight game (off the bench)?

“You have those decisions to make and Wes comes into that category. But two delightful balls (against Moldova and Austria), it’s great. And then we have to retain possession in matches and you don’t want to get shovelled off the ball.”

mon Martin O'Neill pictured at the launch of the SPAR FAI Primary School 5s Programme in Aviva Stadium. Source: Seb Daly/SPORTSFILE

O’Neill also suggested the level Hoolahan is playing at, in the Championship with Norwich, was less than ideal for the player.

All these type of things (are important), but it doesn’t just apply to Wes. It applies to other people… Seamus Coleman, for instance, is playing with Everton. He is playing week-in-week-out at a high level.

“Wes, unfortunately for him, at this minute, isn’t. So I have to consider those things. I went to a Norwich game (recently). It gave me an opportunity to watch Wes and Robbie (Brady), a match against Leeds, and it also gave me a wee chance to look at Eunan O’Kane quite close to the week before we played this game, so I’m up to date.

Robbie played wide right-hand side and was taken off in the game. Did that affect my line of thinking about Robbie Brady? Not in the slightest. Am I going to learn anything more about Wes in terms of his play? Not really, it just gives me an update in general fitness. And that’s just the players I know. Players I don’t know I have to see a bit more of.”

The fact that Ireland can contemplate leaving a player of Hoolahan’s quality out of the starting XI is a sign of the squad’s increasing depth under O’Neill, with other previously peripheral members of the team such as Harry Arter and David Meyler also impressing against the Austrians.

However, the one exception in relation to the squad’s health is arguably in the forward line. With Robbie Keane retired as well as both Shane Long and Daryl Murphy injured ahead of the trip to Vienna, Jon Walters seemed the only obvious option for O’Neill to use in attack. Of the three natural alternatives, none of Kevin Doyle, David McGoldrick or Adam Rooney even made Ireland’s Euro 2016 squad.

Yet the Irish manager may have another option at his disposal sooner rather than later. In-form Brentford striker Scott Hogan has long been linked with an Ireland call-up, though the 24-year-old Salford-born attacker has yet to officially commit to the Boys in Green.

O’Neill, while not revealing too much, sounded somewhat optimistic when asked about Hogan at yesterday’s event.

We’ve certainly got the opportunity (to chat) now, coming up to Christmas and slightly after, the agent did say he’d want to have a conversation, so I’ll hopefully have that and we’ll go from there.”

Republic of Ireland Manager Martin O’Neill and former Republic of Ireland International Keith Andrews were on hand today to launch the SPAR FAI Primary School 5s Programme in Aviva Stadium. The five-a-side school blitzes are open to boys and girls from 4th, 5th and 6th class. Registration will close on February 17th. For further information or to register your school please see www.spar.ie or www.faischools.ie.

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Paul Fennessy

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