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Yesterday's game highlighted why Wes Hoolahan needs to start against Scotland

The Norwich midfielder did not feature against England on Sunday.

Wes Hoolahan was an unused sub for Sunday's Ireland-England clash.
Wes Hoolahan was an unused sub for Sunday's Ireland-England clash.
Image: Donall Farmer/INPHO

Updated at 14.21

MANY PEOPLE, SOMETIMES justifiably, have complained that certain sections of the Irish media have what seems like a near-infatuation with Wes Hoolahan.

Let’s be clear: the 33-year-old is not the saviour of Irish football. Though he may have been underappreciated by certain managers, most notably Giovanni Trapattoni, if he were as spectacular as many critics have suggested, he would have played more than three seasons in the Premier League over the course of his career so far.

His most recent campaign in the top flight was particularly difficult, as he made just 16 appearances and was out of favour for long periods at Norwich. Moreover, he failed to complete 90 minutes in the league even once during 2013-14.

But all that said, against England yesterday, Hoolahan’s absence prompted more questions than answers, and Ireland were so poor in attack that doing likewise on Saturday and leaving him out against the Scots now seems almost unthinkable

Yesterday’s lineup could be seen as a sign that the player, deemed worthy of a recent spot in the Football League Team of the Decade, will not start in the Scotland match, despite impressing with his customary exceptional technical ability in Ireland’s last qualifier against Poland.

After Sunday’s match, Martin O’Neill said he wanted to use Hoolahan from the bench, but had run out of substitutes. Yet if the coach was especially keen to see the Norwich man play, surely he would have introduced him instead of, say, Shay Given, a goalkeeper he should know all about at this stage, given his vast experience at international level.

Nonetheless, Hoolahan’s absence yesterday is not necessarily confirmation that he will be snubbed against Scotland. The ex-Shels midfielder was only recently involved in an intense couple of games in the playoffs, his club expressed reservations about the Dubliner representing Ireland on the back of a long, hard season and the player did miss training the other day owing to a family bereavement — all these factors may have consequently influenced O’Neill’s decision not to pick Hoolahan on Sunday.

And although there were certain players highly likely to play against Scotland that started yesterday — John O’Shea and James McCarthy, to name two — it would not be a shock if O’Neill ultimately goes with a considerably different team featuring Hoolahan on Saturday. In the warm-up for the opening Euro 2016 qualifier away to Georgia, against Oman, for instance, the manager played the ex-Shels player along with Kevin Doyle up top, but a couple of days later, it was Jon Walters and Robbie Keane who started in attack.

So the starting XI yesterday should therefore not be regarded as anywhere near definitive in indicating how and who Ireland will play in their side next weekend.

Nevertheless, on the evidence of Sunday’s perpetually dull encounter at the Aviva, Ireland badly need Hoolahan in the team.

The most impressive factor, from the Boys in Green’s perspective, against England, was the side’s defensive organisation — they rarely looked like conceding a goal against a formidable enough attack by international football standards, encompassing Wayne Rooney and Raheem Sterling among others.

Robbie Brady with Raheem Sterling Source: Gary Carr/INPHO

(Ireland kept the English attack relatively quiet but simultaneously offered little threat in the opposition’s final third)

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And granted, the team may lose some of its solidity at the back by accommodating Hoolahan, who lacks both the pace and the physicality to be considered a defensive asset. True, there is a reason why the player was sometimes left out of the starting XI for away games, including the vital play-off semi-final first leg, by Norwich.

Yet stark conservatism no longer seems like a viable option for Ireland. O’Neill’s men must beat at least some of their rivals to retain any genuine hope of qualifying for Euro 2016, and with Poland away and Germany at home to come, Scotland in the Aviva seems like the team’s most realistic forthcoming chance of picking up three points.

By fielding a solid, unspectacular side, as the Irish did in the reverse fixture against the Scots, they would hardly be approaching a must-win encounter with the level of adventurousness the game warrants.

Some regard Hoolahan as a luxury player who Ireland can ill-afford to accommodate. Playing the ageing Norwich man against top sides, critics argue, is too much of a risk. However, how will we know for sure unless the veteran midfielder is actually given a chance in these games?

Despite being in the twilight years of his career, Hoolahan — who had an incredible 100% pass success ratio in the Championship playoff final to cap off a highly impressive season at club level — has earned just 20 Ireland caps.

Since making his Ireland debut as a substitute against Colombia in 2008, Hoolahan has made just six competitive appearances for Ireland overall — three of these games were against the minnows of Kazakhstan, Faroe Islands and Gibraltar, while two were 14-minute cameos in Sweden and Germany.

So essentially, notwithstanding all the hype, it’s surely a little shameful that a player of such obvious ability representing a country of plainly limited resources effectively had to wait until last March to be given a proper opportunity against a decent team (Poland) in a competitive setting.

Furthermore, if O’Neill was considering snubbing Hoolahan once again, perhaps yesterday’s uninspired game with England will have caused him to think twice. Ireland seldom look liked scoring at any stage, largely as a result of the dearth of creativity in midfield.

The main tactic appeared to revolve around hopeful long balls or defensive errors from the English. The occasional dangerous-looking set piece aside, Ireland could still be playing as I type and would persist in relentlessly flailing and failing to break the deadlock.

The Boys in Green are crying out for someone not content to consistently pass the ball backwards and sideways, a player who’s willing to take risks, try something different and dictate the play, and Hoolahan fits the bill perfectly.

Yes, the diminutive midfielder could not inspire Ireland to victory against Poland, but by most accounts, he had a good game, the second half of which was one of Ireland’s most encouraging collective displays for a long while. Consequently, it was a more than decent showing from a player who was just making his third-ever competitive start for the Boys in Green.

Of course, playing Hoolahan could leave the defence looking somewhat more vulnerable against the Scots, but excluding him from the side would ultimately be a bigger risk — after all, that’s what Ireland have been doing for the past seven years and where has it gotten us?

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About the author:

Paul Fennessy

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