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Opinion: In defence of the much-maligned Glenn Whelan

It was announced today that the Stoke midfielder would likely miss Ireland’s upcoming qualifier against Scotland.

Glenn Whelan is one of the most experienced players in the Ireland set-up.
Glenn Whelan is one of the most experienced players in the Ireland set-up.
Image: Donall Farmer/INPHO

THE NEWS TODAY that Wes Hoolahan and Glenn Whelan will likely miss Ireland’s game with Scotland next month prompted two general reactions on Twitter after it broke.

One response was invariably a jokey reference to Hoolahan’s number one fan — Eamon Dunphy — who is presumably devastated owing to the Norwich man’s expected absence. And the second being a similarly snarky reference to Whelan, with many people suggesting that his injury was in fact good news for the Irish team.

Not only are the latter comments in poor taste given that the man has just suffered a fractured leg, but they are also inaccurate.

Granted, Whelan may not be an exceptional player by any means, and yes, he does have a tendency to pass the ball backwards a little too often, but surely these flaws do not merit the abundance of snide remarks that a bare mention of his name usually prompts.

Of course, people aren’t obliged to like Whelan or agree that he should be a regular starter for Ireland, but the least he deserves is some respect rather than all too hastily being dismissed as ‘shite’ or ‘a waste of space,’ simply because he is a different type of player to the technically accomplished stars that typically grab headlines.

Such unkind claims also ignore a plethora of evidence indicating that Whelan is in fact quite underrated and rather than being ‘lucky’ to have 61 caps, he is actually one of the more important players in the team and a vital component of whatever limited success the Irish side have had over the years.

There is an argument that Ireland improved vastly after the substitutions in their recent clash with Germany, and while there is an element of truth to these suggestions, the ultimately positive result inevitably exaggerates and inflates the importance of the changes.

Jeff Hendrick Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

(Jeff Hendrick replaced the injured Whelan against Germany)

And while Jeff Hendrick, Wes Hoolahan and Darron Gibson all brought something to proceedings after coming on, the team also lost part of their quality in Whelan’s absence, and could easily have conceded more than once following his 54th minute substitution through injury, whereas beforehand, they had struggled to create chances despite their overt dominance of possession.

Prior to his departure, the Germany team managed just two shots on goal, which suggests Whelan was a more influential figure than some would have you believe.

And while Ireland improved going forward as the game developed, they also became much more open and increasingly prone to conceding, as eventually happened when Toni Kroos, with Whelan conspicuously absent, was given far too much time to pick out the corner of the net by the Irish defence.

Furthermore, if Whelan was as poor as many people suggest, he surely would not continue to get picked regularly both at international level and for his club Stoke.

He has played 30-plus games in four of the past five Premier League seasons. No other Irish central midfielder — not even James McCarthy, who is routinely cited as one of the team’s best players — can boast to having similar experience at that level.

Whelan also played in all seven of Stoke’s Premier League games this season prior to the injury. Therefore, were Ireland blessed with countless midfielders getting regular Premier League football, then perhaps Martin O’Neill could afford to ignore him, but until that day arrives, he still deserves to be regarded as an important player.

Even in the Giovanni Trapattoni era, Ireland’s football may not have been pretty, but Whelan made a big difference on several occasions. At their best, the Boys in Green were extremely difficult to break down, and as the primary sitting midfielder, the Stoke man was similarly pivotal along with the likes of Richard Dunne and Sean St Ledger in ensuring the side’s progression to the 2012 Euros, among other notable results.

Even Roy Keane, someone who notoriously doesn’t suffer fools gladly and knows more than most about central-midfield play, would surely not stay silent if he thought the 30-year-old was incapable of making a positive impact at international level.

Soccer - Barclays Premier League - Stoke City v Leicester City - Britannia Stadium Source: Dave Thompson

(Stoke City manager Mark Hughes is an admirer of Whelan)

There are alternatives, of course, but Whelan remains the most logical choice to sit alongside James McCarthy in midfield. Jeff Hendrick is highly promising, but remains an inexperienced Championship player, while Darron Gibson has spent much of his time in the Everton reserves team since returning from a long-term injury, and David Meyler likewise has been in and out of the Hull team.

So for all the claims to Whelan being an ‘average’ player, it remains to be seen whether someone else can do as effective a job in his absence, in what looks set to be a difficult fixture against Scotland this November. He is a very conservative and cautious player, but sometimes this attitude is needed, especially when Ireland come up against a side with plainly superior players.

Of course, Stoke have had a mixed start to their campaign, but he proved his ability to put in a big performance in the club’s 1-0 win away to Manchester City recently.

Moreover, he is unquestionably a fighter, who doesn’t get overly affected by criticism or setbacks. The Dubliner confidently hit back at Eamon Dunphy’s relentless, vociferous criticism not so long ago, and he also came back strongly after being initially dropped following Mark Hughes’ arrival at Stoke.

Hughes, after belatedly acknowledging his importance to the Potters, today paid tribute to Whelan following news of his injury, saying: “The likelihood is he will be out for four to six weeks I’d imagine, which is a blow for Glenn because he is a big part of what we’re doing and we’ll miss him.”

It is unquestionably a statement Martin O’Neill would echo. Yet like all the best players who specialise in unseen work, Whelan won’t truly be appreciated by others until he’s no longer available.

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About the author:

Paul Fennessy

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