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Ken Early: Wes Hoolahan lights up a stage long lacking his presence

All over Europe there will have been people thinking – ‘that Irish number 20 is good’

Wes Hoolahan shows his close control as the Swedish duo of Oscar Lewicki and John Guidetti close in during the Group E game at Stade de France. Photograph: Philippe Lopez/AFP/Getty Images

Ireland can be proud of how they played at the Stade de France, yet there were still occasional passages of play, as the ball looped back and forth between heads in midfield, when you might have been watching a match from the Championship of a continent where football had only recently been introduced.

But then the ball dropped to Wes Hoolahan and the ball was round again.

On a day when Irish players like Jeff Hendrick, Robbie Brady and Séamus Coleman announced themselves on the international stage, Hoolahan gave a performance to make every Irish supporter point and sob through tears of pride: see that? that’s what Irish football is all about.

If only it were as true as we want it to be, if only there were more Hoolahans coming down the line. Brilliant on the ball, pressing tirelessly when he didn’t have it, opening up the game with simplicity and skill – until he came off the field on 78 minutes he stood head and shoulders above Zlatan Ibrahimovic and every other player on the pitch.

Hoolahan scored the goal that looked as though it would win Ireland the game, and he instigated the move that led to it too. His quick throw-in down the line gave Jon Walters and Shane Long a two-on-one against Erik Johansson. Walters played it back to Hoolahan, whose deep cross was headed away to James McCarthy 25 yards out.

His pass to Coleman on the right was actually slightly misdirected and forced Coleman to run wide to retrieve it, but Coleman deftly turned the situation to his advantage. Moving further wide had created a few extra yards of space behind his marker Forsberg, so rather than cross first time, Coleman cut inside and darted past his man into the box.

The cross was nicely measured: “I just put it into an area”, said Coleman, and dropped just over the head of the last Swedish defender into the path of Hoolahan, who buried it in the corner with the sweetest of right-footed half-volleys.

It was the goal of a player perfectly in the moment. It didn’t matter that the chance had fallen on his weaker foot. The decision was instant, the conviction was total, the technique was perfect, and for Ireland, the dream was becoming reality. Hoolahan celebrated in front of the stand at the place where his family and friends were sitting.

On 66 minutes there was another superb piece of Hoolahan skill. He knocked the ball through a challenger’s legs to Long, then retrieved it and beat Sebastian Larsson with a clever drag back. He laid it into the path of McClean. McClean took a rugby style step and raced for the end line, but unfortunately he raced too hard – this was Irish wing play more reminiscent of Horgan than Duff.

All over Europe there will have been people thinking – ‘that Irish number 20 is good. We’ll be seeing more of that guy.’ If they look him up they will be astonished to see that he is already 34. Where has he been hiding?

Ignored, overlooked, left on the shelf. Hoolahan has only 31 caps. It’s one of the most embarrassing numbers in Irish football. He should have had 100.

Hoolahan had to do interviews for TV and for Uefa after being named man of the match, and he proved as elusive in the mixed zone as he had been on the pitch, darting away towards the bus pausing only to say thanks for the congratulations coming his way.

Thankfully Robbie Brady, stuck around and put his own obvious admiration for his team-mate into words.

Class act

“He’s brilliant, he’s a class act. I’m just over the moon for him. No-one can take the goal away from him. Man of the match performance as well, he was excellent. He’s one of these lads, you think he’s gonna get caught on the ball and he just manages to come out with something brilliant to get himself out of it. So he’s a joy to play with and it’s a joy to watch him play.”

What does Brady think about all the years Hoolahan was ignored?

“It’s a shame to football, I think, a shame to Irish football especially that he did miss that much time, and people didn’t get to see him for more time. But he’s here now, and I think people need to just tune in and catch the best of him. Because he’s still a top class player. He looks after himself well, he’s in unbelievable shape. He seems to be getting better with age. If he puts in another performance like today, it’ll do us the world of good.”

Giovanni Trapattoni must take some of the blame. He ignored Hoolahan for the first five years of his regime and only introduced him in the last months.

Hoolahan too, when he looks back, will know that he might have made better use of the first half of his career. But not many 20-year-olds have a fully-developed professional ethic of rational, disciplined self-maximisation. Time seems to move more slowly then, life is more fun. Maybe Wes Hoolahan only woke up to his own potential late. Yesterday we could all be grateful that he got there in the end.