Wes Hoolahan: Ireland’s wrong man, in the wrong place, at the wrong time

Words By Nick Miller Image by Offside
February 9, 2018
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People have never been sure about Wes Hoolahan. As a 16-year-old he had trials with Sunderland, Millwall and Ipswich, but only the latter showed interest. When he moved to Blackpool from Livingston in 2006, he initially had to go on trial again, for a couple of weeks before a loan, rather than just make the move.

He was called up by Ireland for the first time in 2002. He won his first cap in 2008. He won his second in 2012. From when he made his League of Ireland debut in 2001 to that second cap, three permanent Ireland managers didn’t pick him and Giovani Trapattoni only selected him in one game. Trapattoni chose to take Paul Green to Euro 2012 ahead of him.

But one group of people who never seem to be certain about his ability have been the fans. Of Norwich, and most pertinently for the moment, Ireland. Hoolahan retired from international football this week and It seemed to generate a collective Irish sigh, a sense of what if.

Hoolahan was the type of player that fans adored but managers seemed suspicious of. The clamour to include him in Irish teams was initially tinged with baffled fury, then became mere bafflement, then graduating into a sort of sad resignation: “He could always pick Wes,” they would say, looking at each other as if they might as well be saying “We could always win the lottery.”

To the last, there was frustration. Hoolahan admitted that he told Martin O’Neill of his decision last week, but little effort was made to change his mind. Contrast that with John O’Shea, who was persuaded to stay on after considering retirement following Euro 2016. Ireland seemed perfectly happy to say farewell to a man who they never quite seemed to trust, but more keen to hang onto doughty, reliable old O’Shea.

But the frustration came because of his terrific talent. International teams like Ireland rarely have real flair players, someone to pick a pass, to unlock a defence. And now that one of these talents was available to them, they didn’t use him nearly enough.

Even after he seemed to prove his point by shining at Euro 2016 – picking the pass for Robbie Brady’s goal against Italy that sent them through to the second round, scoring the opener against Sweden – he was semi cast aside. In Ireland’s ultimately doomed qualification campaign for World Cup qualification he played 475 minutes from a possible 1,080.

Maybe we shouldn’t view Hoolahan’s career as a long “what if”. He provided enough moments of wonder for everyone to remember him. He did enough. It’s just that he could have done more, if he was allowed to.

Instead more prosaic players were picked ahead of him. The most frequent comparison that has been mentioned since Hoolahan bowed out was, perhaps a little unfairly, Glenn Whelan. The former got 43 caps and the latter 83: it’s very reductive, but if one was so minded, you could say that the water carrier getting nearly twice as many caps as the magician summed up the conservative mentality of the Ireland team.

Hoolahan is the perfect example of the fundamental difference between how fans and managers view football. Fans want someone who can excite them, do something that they will be able to remember for years to come. Fans will appreciate a workhorse, but they will be dazzled by someone like Hoolahan, a man with the wit to do something different.

Managers want someone reliable. Generally speaking they need a player who they know will carry out a plan, be solid, win a game. This is not to necessarily say that flair players can’t be reliable, and obviously they can win games, but the default of many managers, particularly when dealing with a relatively moderate collection of players as Ireland have had in recent years, is to minimise risk. Fairly or not, creativity is still regarded as risky.

But there is a reason why successive managers have not been as convinced of Hoolahan’s talent as many Ireland fans. Perhaps it’s his height. Perhaps it’s his relatively slight build. Perhaps the perception of fitness issues in years past. Perhaps a slight suspicion of his age, relatively old at 23 before he left Ireland, in his 30s for most of the time the clamour existed for his international inclusion. Perhaps it’s just that they don’t believe in his consistency, that his talent is too thinly spread.

Maybe we shouldn’t view Hoolahan’s career as a long “what if”. He provided enough moments of wonder for everyone to remember him. He did enough. It’s just that he could have done more, if he was allowed to.

“You just think ‘I’ve got to do something,’” Hoolahan told Michael Walker for his book ‘Green Shoots’, about Irish football, discussing that Italy game. And he did. But maybe, maybe, he could have done more.

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