Wes Hoolahan an overnight sensation after too many years
Little midfield maestro finally coming into his own for Ireland
When the ball was at Wes Hoolahan’s feet against Portugal in the recent friendly at Meadowlands, one could relax and hope that just maybe, something thrilling and special was going to happen. Photograph: Cathal Noonan/Inpho
The sight of Wes Hoolahan out there on the field in Meadowlands said it all. There were few green shirts on the trains leaving Penn Station for Meadowlands on Tuesday evening, a far cry from 20 years ago when Irish fans colonised the home of Giants’ gridiron for probably the most evocative hour in Irish football.
This time, the Irish team were there to serve as the chorus as Cristiano Ronaldo and his Portuguese team-mates gave an encore to a thrilled Hispanic crowd. Portugal were off to the World Cup. Ireland haven’t been at a World Cup for 12 years and counting.
And an evening of playing second fiddle to the Portuguese was a sobering indication of the magnitude of the task facing Martin O’Neill and his players in the years ahead. When the Irish team played Costa Rica near Philadelphia a week ago, it was hard to reconcile the fact the central Americans are listed some 40 places above Ireland in the Fifa rankings.
When Ireland went on their warm-up tour of the Netherlands and Germany 20 years ago, they were ranked ninth. Did the Costa Ricans know Ireland is the land of Roy Keane, of Paul McGrath, of Liam Brady and John Giles and Mark Lawrenson, of Liam Whelan and Ronnie Whelan, of Damien Duff and Robbie Keane, of John Aldridge and Ray Houghton, to explain rankings don’t tell the real story. But the Costa Ricans could have cared less. They were going to the World Cup.
The Irish were winding down, mentally and physically. The Portuguese wanted to use the game as a last chance to whip up some internal conviction that they actually belonged with the elite of the game.
Comprehensive proofA goal up after just three minutes, 3-0 up with little over half an hour gone and the Portuguese beginning to feel it: it seemed like the most comprehensive proof of just how far removed Ireland were from the high end of the international game.
But then, the occasion was high-humoured and inconsequential: a minor money spinner and a chance for the exiles from both countries in New York to see a genuine world star. The only significant thing that could have happened was an injury to Cristiano Ronaldo and at times the Madrid man strode forward with such space and comfort it was as if no Irish player wanted to be associated with causing one of the stars of the World Cup to miss it.
As the Portuguese eased into their exhibition, we scanned the Irish formation for any glimmer of brightness. And there he was again: Wes Hoolahan, 32 years young and an overnight sensation after too many years of trying.
The sustained absence of Hoolahan was one of the chief criticisms levelled at Giovanni Trapattoni and now he has been given his chance by Martin O’Neill, the Belvedere star has been in luminous form and his play provokes thoughts not just of what he might offer Ireland in the qualifying campaign ahead but what he might have offered Ireland in the four seasons when he was steadfastly ignored by the Italian.