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

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

Sat, Jun 14, 2014, 06:00

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 proof

A 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.

Hoolahan has never been a straightforward footballer and for admirers, there has been something inexplicable about the fact the world in general hasn’t swooned.

Those who witnessed his startlingly poised and comfortable turn for Shelbourne against Deportivo La Coruna in Lansdowne Road a decade ago now felt it presaged a glittering career. At 5ft 6in and full of intuition and imagination and smart accurate passing, Hoolahan’s talents were obvious and he was a crowd pleaser.

But maybe he was too risky for the percentage-driven survival game of the English league and his rise has been slow-burning and consistent, first with Blackpool and now with Norwich, who have done everything to prevent him moving to Aston Villa to rejoin Paul Lambert, his former boss at Carrow Road.

Trapattoni’s line on Hoolahan was they had taken a look at him in their first training camp in Portugal and just decided to go with another formation. He said English league football and international football were a little bit different.

There was always the sense, though, that Hoolahan’s easy, gliding skill and vision didn’t fit in with Trapattoni’s interpretation of what Irish football was about: a limited and muscular team there to be shaped and rigorously organised by a master coach and tactician.

First senior goal

Trap didn’t know what to do with Hoolahan so he did nothing. When he did finally give him a chance in the wake of the humiliating series of games at Euro 2012, Hoolahan responded with his first senior goal, in his second friendly under Trapattoni, against Poland in February 2013.

It was a really lovely, skill-laden goal – controlling the ball with his chest on the run, breaking into the penalty area and half-stabbing, half-lifting the ball into the net with his right foot.

And then the footage of Marco Tardelli, never a man to spurn the opportunity to celebrate a score, rumbling towards Trap to engulf the silver-haired senior in a bear hug.

Trap kept his hands in his pockets and looked irritated. Maybe that was as close as he comes to admitting that with Hoolahan, he got it wrong.

O’Neill has played the cards close when it comes to dropping hints about his first 11 or who he might build his game plan around. But Hoolahan is finally and belatedly in the conversation.

At an age when the stars of many footballers are in descent, Wes Hoolahan seems to have arrived.

Watching him drop in to the centre and get on the ball against Portugal and have the impudence and confidence to try things and to take them on was heartening. When the ball was at Hoolahan’s feet, you could relax and hope that just maybe, something thrilling and special was going to happen.

Hoolahan was 12 during USA 94, an impressionable youngster during the most thrilling of football days. And there he was, back at the scene of victory but in very different circumstances. On a balmy night in New Jersey, Hoolahan ’s display felt like a reason to be hopeful.

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