Better late than never – Hoolahan finally gets to fulfil his promise

Eleven years ago last month, a crowd of 24,000 watched League of Ireland champions Shelbourne claim a famous 0-0 draw against Spanish high flyers Deportivo La Coruna in a Champions League qualifier.

One of the standout performers for the Dublin side that day was 22-year-old Wesley Hoolahan, an exciting attacker who showed composure and poise well beyond his years.

 

Last night, Hoolahan was awarded the Man of the Match award as Ireland claimed a famous 1-0 victory over World Champions Germany, and the playmaker exhibited all of the qualities that were on view against Deportivo in 2004.

The “kick and rush” idea of Irish football that emanated from the Jack Charlton era still forms a big part of a stereotype 25 years on but the nation has also produced some wonderfully talented ball players, including the likes of John Giles, Liam Brady and John Sheridan.

Hoolahan, now 33 but playing better than ever, is cut from a similar cloth in the sense that he always wants the ball and, by giving it to him, the rest of the team can catch their breath in high pressure situations. He doesn’t go hiding when the chips are down and can pick a pass with the best of them.

Against Gibraltar, admittedly weak opposition, he was instrumental in a 7-0 win, dictating the play and managing to get his first competitive goal in a green jersey. He also set up the Shame Long for the crucial equaliser against Poland at the AVIVA Stadium in March.

It has taken a long time for Hoolahan’s ability to be truly appreciated though, and it’s a crying shame that he has only earned 20 full international caps to date.

First called up to the senior squad in 2002, Hoolahan didn’t debut until 2008 when he came on as a substitute against Colombia, and it took until 2012 for him to get on the pitch for a second time.

The five and a half year long Trap era still divides opinion in Ireland; many were left disillusioned by his tactics and unwillingness to take the game to opponents, while others pointed to a limited playing pool and qualification for Euro 2012 as justification for the negative mindset.

Either way, Hoolahan’s playing time under the Italian was almost non-existent and it is only now that he is being given an opportunity to express himself.

Having said that, he is by no means a permanent fixture in the side and Martin O’Neill has left him out of the starting line up for crucial games like Germany and Scotland away.

 

Hoolahan’s path to prominence has been a long one with a few bumps along the way. Unlike a lot of Irish youngsters who make the grade professionally, Hoolahan played all of his underage football in Ireland and turned out for Belvedere FC from under 7s to under 18s before getting his big chance with Shelbourne, debuting in August 2001.

Those who regularly attended League of Ireland matches back in the early 2000s were well aware of Hoolahan’s abilities even before the great European adventure, and there was a strong feeling that the club was taken to the cleaners when Livingston paid around £100,000 to take him to Scotland in December 2005.

Eighteen months later, he was on the move again and headed to England for a loan spell with Blackpool which became permanent, and he played a massive 49 games over the next two campaigns.

Hoolahan is the type of player who, if you walked into a ground at any point during the 90 minutes to watch him, you would not know what position he was playing in, such is his desperation to get on the ball.

Steve Claridge, 2007

In 2008, Norwich City activated a release clause and signed him to a three-year deal but things got off to a rough start as the Canaries were relegated to League One at the end of his first season.

They bounced back quickly though and claimed back-to-back promotion to reach the Premier League in 2011, with Hoolahan earning a spot in the 2010/11 Championship Team of the Season after scoring 10 goals in 41 league games.

Two seasons of top flight stability followed with Hoolahan in the team but Norwich were relegated to the second tier in May 2013, and he played just 16 teams as speculation mounted around a move away from Carrow Road.

Indeed, in January 2014, Hoolahan submitted a formal transfer request and came close to joining Aston Villa. However, the move broke down and in August 2014 he penned a new deal with the club.

He was named part of the Championship’s Team of the Decade at the Football League Awards in April this year, and it seemed like everyone except the Irish management was aware of the qualities that Hoolahan could bring to the international set up.

 

A starter for a lot of this European Championship qualifying campaign, Hoolahan found himself playing a bit part role when Ireland went on their travels as O’Neill opted for more robust options than a 5 foot 7 inch creator.

It’s hard to argue with the manager’s decision when you consider the win in Georgia to open the campaign and the dramatic late draw in Gelsenkirchen, but it should be pointed out that Ireland’s best spell and subsequent equaliser in the latter game came after Hoolahan was introduced as a 76th minute substitute.

There’s pressure every time you play. I’m a player who needs to do something or score a goal and if not, people think I’ve had a bad game. That’s the pressure which comes with it.

Wes Hoolahan, 2015

In the wake of the Germany victory though, there can be no doubt that “Wessi” must be a one of the first names on the team sheet whenever fit, and he will have a huge role to play on Sunday when Ireland go to Poland knowing that a 2-2 draw at least will be good enough for automatic Euro 2016 qualification.

Despite heading towards his mid-30s, Hoolahan looks and plays like he’s a decade younger, and an appearance for Ireland at a major tournament would be especially satisfying for those who watched him light up Tolka Park back in his early years.

Author Details

Neil Sherwin

Co-editor of BackPageFootball.com. Writes mostly on Premier League and A-League with contributions to other sites including TheFootballSack, InBedWithMaradona and Bloomberg's BSports. Has featured on The Guardian's Football Weekly.

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