WHEN A FOOTBALL FAN attempts to objectively weigh up their team’s chances for a big game, the starting line-up often seems to either boost or dampen their optimism. Such a reaction is understandable and one can read a lot of the manager’s approach through his team selection. The players left out often hint at your side’s plan of attack for the opening 45 minutes. In recent years, Irish football fans often pinned their confidence on the answer of one question: “Is Wes Hoolahan starting?”
The inclusion of the Dublin native was a statement, a promise to the fans that their side would attack today. The idea of definitively reading the manager’s approach from the inclusion or exclusion of one playmaker may sound absurd to some readers, but it’s by no means an exaggeration; more a testament to the unique talent he possessed despite being raised in an environment that promoted very a different type of football.
Take the opening 45 minutes of Ireland first game at Euro 2016 for example. It had been a tight affair but Wes Hoolahan volleyed home a memorable winner, ensuring pandemonium in Paris and in countless bars back home. The Dublin native has been the difference maker time and again for the national side.
Hoolahan continued to make the difference in France, coming off the bench against Italy with the scores level and nearly registering the winner. He confidence undented, it was his fantastic cross that found Robbie Brady in space to send Ireland through to their first ever Euros knockout game. Sadly, he couldn’t save them from an exit against the hosts. His performances in France sparked a debate rarely seen in Irish football.
Wes Hoolahan was born in Dublin on 20 May 1982, his father claiming that a ball rarely left the infant’s feet. He joined his first team, Belvedere, and played through the youth ranks there, standing out for his slim figure and diminutive size. The well-travelled midfielder, Alan Cawley, recalls his days as a 16-year old at Belvedere where he played alongside Hoolahan: “This little lad caught my eye during the warm-up, but I presumed he was one of the coach’s kids and had tagged along to see the match. Then the manager began handing out the jerseys, and when it came to number 11, he threw it to Wes. In my head I was thinking, ‘This can’t be right, this little lad can’t be playing’. We went out and the little lad was amazing. He was putting the ball through people’s legs, twisting and turning people inside out, he was absolutely brilliant.”
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Cawley and many other of Hoolahan’s teammates would later move across the channel to test their talent, as many Irish prodigies do. Hoolahan, despite trials at Ipswich, Sunderland and Millwall, remained at Belvedere, his height often cited as an issue, “At that age, when I was 13, 14, I was very small for my age. 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. Obviously nothing happened but you just keep going and try not to think about it as much, Now, in this era, there are so many. You look at the Barcelona team, the Spain team, they’re all very good on the ball and have good technique.”
His natural talent eventually won out as he was recruited by Dublin giants Shelbourne through the Fás course. Hoolahan captivated the modest crowds at Tolka Park, where won three league titles and earned himself an Ireland call-up aged just 20. He was an unused substitute for that game against Greece and although a call-up for such a young player would usually suggest Hoolahan was highly touted, he would have to wait another six years before he made his Ireland.
Along with the league titles, Hoolahan also played a big part in Shelbourne’s historic Champions League run. Shels reached the third round of qualifying, the first Irish club to get that far, drawing a mighty Deportivo side. They held the famous Super Depor 0-0 at Lansdowne Road before losing 3-0 in the away leg.
His performances finally earned him a break abroad in 2005, moving to Scottish club Livingston and then to Blackpool on loan. He later signed for Blackpool permanently, though the move was bogged down by a dispute over ownership that had to be resolved by FIFA. With his move finally made permanent, Hoolahan helped Blackpool win promotion into the Championship through the playoff final in Wembley.
Hoolahan’s first season at Blackpool finally earned him an Ireland debut in 2008 against Colombia. The Boys in Green won the friendly 1-0, with Hoolahan playing the full 90, however his Ireland career continued to stall with new manager, the legendary Giovanni Trapattoni, only affording Hoolahan another seven caps. The Italian opted for a strong, physical side, a bill that the small, technically gifted Hoolahan didn’t fit.
When his nation was routed by Spain to kill any dreams of reaching the knockout stages of Euro 2012, Hoolahan sat helplessly watching at home. Back at Blackpool, he maintained his starting place during their first season in the Championship but left the club when Norwich came calling.
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Few managers can claim to have done more for Wes Hoolahan’s career than Paul Lambert. Before their reunion at Norwich in the summer of 2008, Lambert was the coach who had given him his big break in professional football at Livingston. Now, the Scottish manager would get the best out of the Irish playmaker at Norwich. Until this point, Hoolahan had played largely out on the wing, but Lambert opted to deploy him in a central role.
The change worked wonders, with the 26-year-old pivotal in Norwich’s charge from League One to the Premier League soon earning the nickname ‘Wessi’ among the Canaries’ support. In his first Premier League season, Hoolahan was given the captaincy and notably led Norwich to a famous win over Liverpool. He racked up 33 appearances in his first two seasons in the English top flight, but things turned sour when Lambert moved to Aston Villa.
Successive coaches at Norwich felt there were better options than Hoolahan and he was used as a rotation option. There was further frustration for Hoolahan when the club rejected his transfer request, scuppering a third reunion with Lambert. It was only after Norwich were relegated in 2013/14 that Hoolahan earned his place in the squad again, impressing as he helped Norwich bounce right back into the Premier League, scoring a vital penalty in the playoff semi-final against local rivals Ipswich.
His impressive form and a return to the Premier League caught the eye of new Ireland manager Martin O’Neill. Under the Northern Irishman, Hoolahan enjoyed his most prominent role in the Irish squad. He was capped in O’Neill first six games in charge, including some of the early qualifying games for Euro 2016. Hoolahan’s presence in the Ireland line-up was questioned by the Irish media, with a focus on his age, size and the old stereotype that the midfielder was a luxury player. However, he swooned most of his critics by encouraging an attractive style of football that came at odds with the pragmatic long-ball tactics that the national team had championed for much of the 1990s.
After scoring in a 7-0 rout of Gibraltar, Hoolahan was benched for the crucial away game against Germany. Without Hoolahan in the side, Ireland returned to their overly cautious tactics, Hoolahan was introduced with 15 minutes to go and involved in the build-up to Ireland’s late equaliser. Despite the impressive cameo against Germany, O’Neill continued to opt for caution in later games against Scotland.
Every time Hoolahan was left out, Ireland switched from progressive, attacking football to cynical, defensive football. Debates swirled over the midfielder, with much of the conversation less about the quality of player and more about the style of football he seemed to promote.
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The Irish footballing community finally got their wish when Hoolahan was given a run of games towards the end of the Euro qualifiers. A Scotland loss in Georgia had opened the door for Ireland and they took the opportunity with both hands, beating Gibrator and Georgia before a dramatic win over the world champions in Dublin ensured Ireland at least a playoff spot, despite losing to Poland in the final game.
Hoolahan started all four of those games and in both legs of the playoff against Bosnia, and although he didn’t register any goals or assists, his presence in the starting line-up continued to have a positive effect on his teammates. With qualification for France secured, it was clear that an Ireland with Hoolahan not only played attractive football but effective football.
Hoolahan started just four games in Ireland’s World Cup qualifying campaign, perhaps more a sign of the veteran midfielder’s ageing legs than O’Neill excluding the playmaker. The Boys in Green managed to reach the playoffs after another dramatic late push in qualifying, this time culminating in a win against Wales in Cardiff. Sadly, it all collapsed in nightmarish fashion, with Ireland losing 5-1 to Denmark in front of a packed Aviva after a scoreless draw in Denmark. Hoolahan played the second half of that game, but it was too late to save the World Cup dream. That tragic cameo was the last we would see of Wes Hoolahan in an Ireland shirt, announcing his international retirement months later.
With just 43 international appearances to his name, Irish football will likely remember the debate surrounding the player rather than the player himself. The public is unlikely to accept a return to the hoofball days after they have had a taste of what Hoolahan brought to the table. It seems ludicrous that one player could have such an effect on a team’s style – and in some respects in debatable – but Hoolahan symbolised a progressive Ireland, which was often negated by archaic methods.
In the end, beyond the debate and identity crises, we have a player who was repeatedly denied a chance to shine by successive managers at home and abroad, often based on his size and perceived inconsistency. This was at a time when some of the best teams in the world were made up of players no taller than Hoolahan. His former teammate, Alan Cawley, bluntly stated in a recent interview: “I look back on it and think of the years he missed out on. He has 43 caps; he should have 143 caps. He missed the guts of six or seven years, and I know that he wasn’t playing at the highest level but look at his talent. That he wasn’t embraced, it’s a sad indictment of Irish football.”