In August 2004, Shelbourne played Deportivo La Coruña in the third qualifying round of the Champions League, with a place in the group stage at stake. Joan Capdevila, a future World Cup and European Championship-winning defender, was on the bench for the both ties, while Juan Carlos Valerón started in midfield for a team containing 10 internationals.
Although the Spanish side were not of the vintage that won La Liga in 2000, they had only narrowly lost to José Mourinho’s Porto in the previous season’s semi-final by a single goal. Shelbourne, who had already made history by reaching this stage of the competition, the first Irish side to do so, had to move the first leg across the city to Lansdowne Road, their modest Tolka Park home failing to meet UEFA standards. Over 24,000 packed into the creaking old stadium, and many more watched on national television at home. Despite the pedigree of the visitors, there was no doubt who was man of the match.
Wes Hoolahan, a 22-year-old, skilful midfielder, with an eye for a threaded pass, stood above everyone else on show, despite only being five foot six inches. The game finished goalless, with the Irish side kept their illustrious opponents quiet and carved out a number of decent chances, leaving themselves needing just a score draw in the second leg to make the lucrative group stages of the world’s elite club competition.
Hoolahan was central to everything positive Shels produced, probing and prodding with a series of through balls, neat and clever in possession and causing the international footballing aristocrats constant trouble. He also worked hard when out of possession. In the Irish Independent, David Kelly wrote: ‘Hoolahan was creating severe problems for Depor, so much so that Sergio was booked midway through the half for tugging his shirt as the 22-year-old once against broke free with the ball glued to his feet. His deft skills were central to maintaining Shelbourne’s movement.”
Whatever the result of the second leg, Hoolahan’s display that August night proved the midfielder was more than capable of thriving on such an illustrious stage. Although few would’ve expected him to move directly to an established Champions League, surely a move to the Premier League, or an ambitious Championship side, would come to fruition? It was already an aberration that such a talented player was not plying his trade in English football, the end goal for the best Irish footballers.
It would take another 16 months, but the Dubliner eventually got his move across the water – to Livingston in Scotland, a club about as removed from the glamour of Champions League nights as one can imagine. Hoolahan had proved himself too good for Irish domestic football, capable of excelling at an advanced stage of European competition but seemingly not good enough for the upper echelons of British football. Or, not tall enough.
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Hoolahan had been on trial in England as a teenager at clubs such as Millwall, Sunderland and Ipswich Town. “At that age, when I was 13, 14, I was very small,” he told Dion Fanning in the Sunday Independent. “You’d see a lot of the big players were going abroad on trials and stuff like that and I never got the opportunity until I was about 16 or 17.”
However, despite his obvious talent, skill and confidence on the ball, as well as the courage to always seek it in tight spaces, clubs and coaches could not look past his height, and he was deemed too small and not physical enough for the battle that was English football. “Nobody’s ever said to me, ‘Wesley you didn’t make it at Ipswich because you were too small’.” Perhaps that’s because they didn’t have to say it; it was depressingly obvious.
John Giles, the former Leeds United and Ireland midfielder, wrote about how he alerted an unnamed Premier League club to Hoolahan before the player joined Livingston: ‘The club duly had a look but a negative message came back. Sure, he had loads of skill but he was far too small for the rough and tumble of the modern Premier League. I must say I was angry. Very angry. I couldn’t believe that they could not see value in a player with very obvious skill and a very obvious hunger to make a go of it.’
Giles, a small, skilful and intelligent midfielder who had a very successful career in England, found it ironic that the club in question were rejecting a small, skilful, intelligent midfielder because of his lack of physical attributes. Physicality has always been a valued aspect of British, and by extension, Irish football. A teenage Roy Keane was also deemed too small by scouts and coaches, and had to watch a stream of lesser players get their chance ahead of him. This emphasis on brawn over brains was particularly prominent during Hoolahan’s formative years, and when he belatedly arrived across the Irish sea.
In 2005, Michel Essien’s transfer from Lyon to Chelsea became the most expensive deal for a midfielder to that point in the history of the English top flight. The equally athletic Steven Gerrard was in his pomp and Claude Makélélé had patented the Makélélé Role. Patrick Vieira had departed Arsenal for Juventus, and Keane recently left Old Trafford, but central midfield was the land of the physical giants and powerhouses when Hoolahan arrived at Livingston, and was promptly placed on the wing. He was 24 and his big move may not have been that big – and occurred 10 years later than it should have – but from Livingston the Dubliner would join League One side Blackpool in 2006 and help them secure promotion.
2008 would prove to be a watershed year for Hoolahan, and small skilful midfielders in general. The 26-year-old earned his first Ireland cap, a move to Norwich and a central attacking position under Paul Lambert.
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That year Spain’s team of small midfielders took the European Championships by storm. Xavi, Andrés Iniesta, Cesc Fàbregas and David Silva, debunked the fossilised notion that midfield was an area exclusively for lung-busting athletes. Social Darwinist ideals of survival of the fittest proved outdated and detrimental, intelligence and technique trumped physicality.
The revolution carried into club football. Barcelona, in Pep Guardiola’s first season as coach, won a historic treble, with Spain’s control of possession fused with the magic of Lionel Messi. Spain’s victory in the 2010 World Cup and the 2012 European Championships, and Barcelona’s continued club dominance, completely changed football and perceptions of physicality. The land of the giants had been colonised by pygmies.
Meanwhile, Ireland were managed by Giovanni Trapattoni, one of the game’s greatest ever defensive coaches, who had little faith in the ability of Irish players, and distrusted Hoolahan’s talent. The midfielder’s career began to gather momentum, and Norwich rose up the divisions, but he was firmly in the international wilderness, despite cries from pundits and fans for his inclusion. There would be no room for him in Trapattoni’s system, and the Italian seemed genuinely baffled that someone could suggest there was.
Ireland qualified for Euro 2012, but lined out in a rigid, hopelessly outdated system and were the worst team at the tournament. Surely only a sadist would pit Glenn Whelan and Keith Andrews against Xavi, Sergio Busquets and Iniesta in central midfield. The Irish team need an injection of life. By 2012, Hoolahan was finally in the Premier League with Norwich, and earned his second cap, but the 30-year-old was used reluctantly and very sparingly by Trapattoni in his final year in charge, as Ireland finished fourth in qualifying for the 2014 World Cup.
The appointment of Martin O’Neill as manager, and Roy Keane as assistant, in November 2013 brought renewed interest and hope in the team, and that Hoolahan’s talents would be at last utilised. A series of starts in friendly games pointed to him playing a central role for Ireland in the autumn of his career, yet he was dropped for Ireland’s qualifying games away to Georgia, Scotland and Germany in the first half of the campaign.
O’Neill restored him to the side for the crucial qualifying game against Scotland, but withdrew him in the final stages as Ireland were chasing a winner. That disappointing draw appeared to end Ireland’s hopes of qualifying for Euro 2016, and any chance of Hoolahan ever playing on Europe’s big stage. However, through a combination of Scotland collapsing, an incredible win over Germany, and two controlled performances against Bosnia-Herzegovina, Ireland qualified for Euro 2016 and Hoolahan was central to Ireland’s upturn. The team looked as though they had suffered a lobotomy when he was not present and had made himself an indispensable member of the team.
Following Ireland’s final friendly before Euro 2016 in Dublin, the Netherlands manager made the obligatory reference to Ireland’s physicality and direct tactics. “They are very dangerous with corners and free-kicks. That’s football for them,” said Danny Blind. Hoolahan, however. shows this is not the case.
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Irish football, at its purest level, is street football, particularly for Dubliners and those growing up in urban areas. The term street footballer has become something of a cliché, bound to prompt rolling of the eyes from some. However, the term applies to Hoolahan in the purest sense. This is why Hoolahan is celebrated by former Irish players and TV pundits Giles and Eamon Dunphy, both of whom grew up in Dublin during the 1950s. To them he represents the ideals of Irish football and a type of player the country should strive to produce and cherish.
The best Irish players, from Giles to Liam Brady, Damien Duff to Robbie Keane, honed their skills on housing estates, in tight areas, where close control, speed of thought, dribbling and spatial awareness are the valuable attributes. It makes no sense to hoof the ball in this environment. It is only when Irish kids enter organised football that physicality becomes prized over technique or skill. The ball is lumped forward, outdated ideals of kick and rushed are ignorantly aped and the talented, skilful and small players are lost to the game.
Hoolahan could have been lost from the game at numerous points. From schoolboy football with Belvedere and being the smallest player on the pitch, failing to be picked up by a club across the water as a teenager, playing in the League of Ireland and only arriving in British football when he was 24, but he persisted. Hoolahan eventually reached the Premier League when he was 29, became an international regular aged 33 and made his debut at a major tournament age 34.
The overriding emotion for many with Hoolahan is what might have been? Why does this wonderful player not have three times as many caps? Why was he in the wilderness during his prime years? What does it say about Irish and British football that such a talented player was shunted out to the wing and overlooked for the vast majority of his career?
However, we should not lament Hoolahan’s career, but rather appreciate the player for what he is, rather than what might have been. By the impossible odds set against a youngster from Dublin making it in the competitive environments of English football, he has had a successful career. The real lament is for the other Hoolahan type players who were overlooked because they were too small or deemed to lack physical attributes.
Shelbourne’s second leg against Deportivo in August 2004 ended in a 3-0 loss, and Hoolahan would have to wait until June 2016 to play on Europe’s big stage again, but it was worth the wait. In Paris, against Zlatan Ibrahimović and Sweden, the little Dubliner was the most skilful player on show and fully deserved his man of the match award, just as he did at Lansdowne Road all those years ago.
A goal by an Irish team at a major championship is a rarity and therefore a joyous moment for Irish fans. But when Hoolahan scored a half-volley on his weaker right foot, with a sea of green in the goal behind him, it was a moment to cherish for Irish football fans. The street footballer finally got his chance on the biggest stage, and proved what many knew for years – he belonged there.
By Robert Redmond. Follow @RobRedmond10