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'He's getting no-frills treatment there but he still manages to make it look effortless'

Twenty years since his professional debut, Wes Hoolahan is still going strong as he approaches 39.

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DESPITE SEEING HIS team suffer a significant setback in their bid for promotion, Mark Cooper couldn’t resist acknowledging the brilliance of the man who was primarily responsible for condemning them to a costly defeat.

Last month’s game between Cambridge United and Forest Green Rovers – a meeting of the teams placed second and third in League Two – was settled by a goal from a man with a track record of conjuring such moments of magic.

“He went past about four players,” Cooper, the manager of Forest Green, said of Wes Hoolahan’s decisive strike in the 38th minute.

“We didn’t have that energy to block him off or stand across him. He’s 38 years old and I think he just went up the tunnel, gave his kit to their kitman and said ‘fold that up for me for next week’ – he was that good, he didn’t even break a sweat.”

For Cambridge United supporters, if there were concerns about Hoolahan’s age beneath the overall sense of elation that greeted his arrival last July, they were soon put to rest.

He had just returned to English football from Australia, where a serious ankle injury and the suspension of the A-League restricted his involvement with Newcastle Jets.

Cambridge therefore signed a 38-year-old who played only six games in the previous year. It wouldn’t have been entirely absurd to wonder if his involvement with a League Two club in the deep winter of his career was motivated purely by a desire to eke out a contract while there was still someone willing to offer one.

With just two games remaining in the 2020-21 season, Cambridge fans now know that they needn’t have worried. In fact, they’ve known since September, when he followed up an impressive debut against Carlisle United with a spectacular opening goal in a 5-0 trouncing of fellow promotion hopefuls Morecambe.

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“There’s quality and then there’s contribution, and we’ve had both from Wes this year,” says Jordan Worland of ‘Under The Abbey Stand’, a fanzine and podcast dedicated to Cambridge United.

“We’ve had the touches of class via his control, passing and vision – it’s like nothing we’ve seen at the Abbey [Stadium] before. But his impact has been so much more than these flashes of elegance. Wes has created numerous opportunities, assists and, at times, dragged us up the field.

“There weren’t many doubts about his quality when he signed. The only minor questions among fans were around how well he had recovered from the injury he picked up in Australia and if there was a risk of further injury this season because of it.

“We went into this season – like most League One and Two clubs – on a much-reduced budget due to fans not being allowed in the ground. Our owner is also in the travel industry, which has taken a hit because of Covid-19. It was only natural then to worry that a chunk of our budget could have been used up on someone carrying that risk of a recurring injury.

“There have been a few moments that showed this season wasn’t about the cash for him. I’ve seen it every time in his reactions to the late goals we’ve scored.

“He was first in the bundle when we got a 94th-minute winner against Walsall and he bust a gut to get upfield to create the 90th-minute winner versus Carlisle. We’ve scored late a lot this season and it shows there is a real fighting attitude in the team. Wes plays a leading role in that.” 

Twenty years since he was introduced to senior football at Shelbourne, Hoolahan continues to excel. Nowadays he’s a model professional, extolling the benefits of regular stretching and yoga in helping to extend his career. Nutrition has also been pivotal for a man who, by his own admission, refuelled after games early in his career with fast food and pints of beer.

“When he was out here with us last year he got a fracture to his leg,” explains Newcastle Jets striker Roy O’Donovan, who first crossed Hoolahan’s path in 2005 when the pair were on opposing sides of the Shels-Cork City rivalry.

“At his age and with all the achievements he already had – from Ireland caps to playing in the Premier League – it would have been the easiest thing in the world for him to put the cue in the rack and enjoy a holiday for the rest of his time in Australia.

“But no, he worked his backside off and lived his life right. As soon as he came back from the injury he looked the part. It was great to play with him for that short spell.

“It’s no surprise to see how well he’s been doing at Cambridge. He works very hard and really looks after himself to stay fit. On top of that he’s a great lad too.”

When Covid-19 put A-League fixtures on hold in March of last year, the Irish duo in the Newcastle Jets ranks didn’t see the break as an opportunity to unwind.

O’Donovan explains: “Wes and myself used to meet up two or three days a week to do our own bit of training. He’d set the tone on a five-kilometre run and it was a challenge to keep with the pace.

“The intensity and desire to stay at the top of his game was still there. He’s not the type of fella to take his ability for granted. He wanted to stay fit and strong, which is something that also rubs off on younger players in the group. When they saw he was working as hard as that, they realised that they had to be in good nick for when they came back after the lockdown.”

Newcastle Jets ultimately had to plan without Hoolahan following the resumption of the 2020 season. Although he was offered a new contract, the Dubliner and his family returned to their home in Norwich as his wife prepared to give birth to their third child. The decision gave Cambridge United a second chance to sign a player who trained with them in 2019 before opting for Australia.

In this evening’s game at Harrogate Town – Hoolahan’s 35th for the club – a win will confirm promotion to League One for Mark Bonner’s side, with a draw also likely to suffice due to their healthy goal difference.

When the teams met earlier in the season, Cambridge needed two late goals to win after trailing for over an hour. Hoolahan created one and scored the other, emphasising his role as the attacking fulcrum for a club that has been exceeding its own expectations.

“They wanted an improved finish to previous campaigns, but I don’t think anyone – including those at the club – believed that they would be automatic promotion contenders,” journalist Stephen Page of The Cambridge News says of a team who finished 16th last season.

“It says a lot about his attitude that Wes still wants to play professional football at 38 years of age. The other players have mentioned how impressed they have been with him in training, not just on a match day. Having a player of his ability around the squad will only have helped to raise the standards amongst the group.

“Mark Bonner has previously spoken about the humility that Wes has in the way that he conducts himself as a professional. His ability is obviously a huge plus-point but I’m confident that he wouldn’t have been recruited if he wasn’t the right type of character as well.”

Bonner, Cambridge’s manager, who’s three years Hoolahan’s junior, said of his Irish playmaker after a crucial win against Salford City: “He is a brilliant footballer, in the twilight years of his career, but he just plays like he is loving life.”

cambridge-united-v-bradford-city-sky-bet-league-two-the-abbey-stadium A trio of Bradford City players attempt to curb the influence of Wes Hoolahan. Source: PA

To help his most experienced player handle the Football League’s demanding schedule, Bonner devised a plan in December. Hoolahan would play in weekend games, but Tuesday night fixtures were off the menu. After two decades of professional football, his body needed the additional time to recover.

Since then, Cambridge won 72% of the 18 games in which Hoolahan played from the start. In the seven games for which he was absent, it dropped to 29%.

He was named League Two Player of the Month for January – the oldest winner in the award’s history – and was also one of three nominees for Player of the Year at last night’s EFL ceremony (a remarkable goal tally of 29 saw that prize go to his team-mate Paul Mullin).

Hoolahan’s achievements at Cambridge may not feature prominently on a personal roll of honour that includes over 100 Premier League appearances and a senior international career that peaked with his vital input in Ireland’s run to the knockout stages of Euro 2016.

However, the quality of his displays in the fourth tier of English football shouldn’t be scoffed at, Roy O’Donovan insists. From the Premier League with Sunderland to League Two with Northampton Town, O’Donovan has experienced both ends of the spectrum.

“Listen, it’s sometimes easier to play in the Premier League than it is in League Two,” he says. “In the Premier League you’ll often have a lot more space to play with and you’re getting better service from better players with better timing.

“He’s getting no-frills treatment there but he still manages to make it look effortless. That’s a great credit to him and it just shows the class of the guy.

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“There aren’t many players in the game who have the quality and cleverness that he has, but he’s got a bit of a bastard in him as well when it’s needed. He’s always desperate to win.

“If you’re going to kick him you better make sure he stays down because he’ll come back to hurt you, and he’ll usually do that with the football. Wes, for all his ability with the ball, has also got a competitive streak right to his core and he backs down from nobody.”

Via their social media channels earlier this week, Norwich City marked the three-year anniversary of Hoolahan’s last game for the club. After a decade with the Canaries, he was given an emotional send-off in 2018 for the visit of Leeds United. Fittingly, he checked out with a goal and an assist in a 2-1 victory.

Luke Hannant, one of his current Cambridge United team-mates, is a Norfolk native who was a Norwich City season ticket holder during Hoolahan’s time at Carrow Road. 

“Oh my God, this guy – some of the things he does in training make us just stand there because the quality is out of this world,” he said recently when discussing Hoolahan. “I think people look at him as coming to the end of his career, but I don’t. He’s still in great shape and you can see that in games.

“He’s been a great idol for me and the lads give me a little bit of stick because I always talk about him being at Norwich and stuff. But it’s hard not to when you’ve grown up watching someone as good as Wes and then you’re fortunate enough to play alongside him.” 

Three weeks out from his 39th birthday, advocating for Hoolahan’s return to the Ireland squad for the first time since the 2018 World Cup play-off defeat to Denmark – after which he retired from international football – would be a romantic notion.

There’s something wholesome nonetheless about a player choosing to make the most of the ability he worked hard to accrue before the decision can be taken out of his hands.

“I knew from my time at Cork City, as did everyone else in the League of Ireland, just how good he was even back then,” Roy O’Donovan says. “It was just surprising that it took until he was in his mid-20s for people in the UK to cop on to it. I think that’s partly why he’s still going strong at this age – he felt like he was a little bit of a late starter in that regard.

“I saw the other day that Zlatan Ibrahimovic has signed a new deal at AC Milan that will take him past his 40th birthday. I have no doubt that Wes will keep going that long as well.”

Should Cambridge succeed in their bid to move up to League One, 2021-22 will mark their first season at that level in 19 years. They’ve been competing in League Two since 2014, having previously endured nearly a decade as a non-league outfit.

The club rose to unprecedented heights in the early 1990s. As well as reaching consecutive FA Cup quarter-finals, they came very close to being one of the 22 members of the inaugural Premier League. However, a defeat to Leicester City in the 1991-92 Second Division play-offs ended their hopes of being promoted for the third season in a row. 

“There are generations of fans who weren’t around to see those glory days under John Beck, or even our most recent promotion to League One in 1999,” says Jordan Worland. “Getting promoted will be hugely significant to those and Wes has been instrumental in that.

cambridge-united-v-walsall-sky-bet-league-two-abbey-stadium Hoolahan delivering a corner during Cambridhe United's game against Walsall last month. Source: PA

“In terms of the club’s greatest players, only our club historians could find a rival for you, Wilf Mannion, who played for us for two years in the 1950s and, similarly to Wes, joined us aged 38. If you were judging it purely on technical ability, I’d struggle to find anyone who comes remotely close to Wes.

“I’ll be eternally grateful to this group of Cambridge players for the joy they’ve brought during this horrible period of time, and Wes has been a huge part of that.”

Stephen Page adds: “Mark Bonner described Wes as one of the best players to play for Cambridge United in recent times, and it’s hard to disagree. It’s a real shame that fans have hardly seen him live as I’m sure he would have thrived in front of supporters at the Abbey.”

In a difficult season to follow a football club, Wes Hoolahan has helped to give many Cambridge United fans the best one they’ve ever had.

For more great storytelling and analysis from our award-winning journalists, join the club at The42 Membership today. Click here to find out more >

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Paul Dollery

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