What will we talk about now Wes Hoolahan has retired?
Ireland playmaker was a centrepoint of discussion during his international career
Ireland’s Wes Hoolahan has retired from international football. Photo: Ryan Byrne/Inpho
And so to all of the other vacancies he has on his hands going into his Turkish training camp and friendly next month, Martin O’Neill can add the job title: midfield maestro. The successful candidate will, one presumes, have some pretty small boots to fill.
Wes Hoolahan would have been 36 by the time Ireland played another competitive game and 38 before the next European Championships and so it was no great surprise yesterday when the news broke that he has decided to make way. Still, a little sadness was inevitable.
Hoolahan had long seen by his many supporters as the flag carrier for a more adventurous style of football and whether he started or not came to define a team selection. Giovanni Trapattoni spent a good portion of his time at the Irish helm clearly bewildered by the fuss but insisting nevertheless that he had not forgotten about the Norwich City midfielder.
He handed him his debut in 2008 but took four years to play him again. Significantly, though, the Italian started to give the midfielder opportunities once he had seen that he could cope well enough in the Premier League, something that neither Steve Staunton nor Brian Kerr ever got to be completely sure about while in the job.
He featured in just two competitive games for the veteran coach but from the friendly against Greece in which he earned cap number two he had a hand in 42 of the 59 games that Ireland played until the end of last year, starting 24 of them. For all the endless talk about his exclusion, that’s not too bad for a player who was not actually available for every match.
Martin O’Neill will certainly feel that he showed a fair bit of faith in a player who was, on the face of it, already past his prime when the northerner took charge. The former Shelbourne player rarely played all 90 minutes of a game but in 2015 he featured in every competitive one that Ireland had and the following year only missed out on two of 13 in total.
The debate about him came to centre on whether Ireland were better off with him starting or coming on to open teams up as opponents were starting to look stretched. O’Neill suggested at one point that he was primarily one for the home games but Hoolahan was involved in almost all of the manager’s biggest successes.
He played 90 minutes in the home win over Germany, scored against Sweden at Euro 2016 then came on to provide a wonderful assist for Robbie Brady’s winner against Italy. He had featured too in the draw away to Bosnia and Herzegovina that would pave the way for Ireland’s qualification for the tournament and when the World Cup qualifiers came around he was a starter again in the win away to Austria, the first time Ireland had beaten real qualification rivals on the road in 30 years.
The downside of his game, the occasional misplaced pass and surrendered possession, sometimes in positions or at moments when Ireland could ill afford to give the ball away, was obvious in Chisinau in October 2016 with the midfielder the culprit who handed the hosts the opportunity to break and score just before half-time.
But what he brought to a team that persistently lacked creativity, the ability to push forward at pace or, in particular, a perception of what was possible as the team moved into the final third, was all too obvious in both of that campaign’s games against the Moldovans. Away, he played Shane Long in for the opening goal with a perfect through ball then persistently wriggled away from opponents to give himself the moment required to find space for those around and, most importantly, in front of him. Back in Dublin, he had some genuinely outstanding moments including a stunning angled long ball for Stephen Ward that highlighted the great range of his passing.
He was an unused sub in Cardiff, however, where force rather than finesse was seen as the order of the day and his last appearance for Ireland came in the second leg of the play-off against Denmark when O’Neill asked the impossible of him when bringing him on to change the game at half-time.
His club career reinforced the impression that, for all the adoration he enjoyed from Irish supporters, the weaknesses were a price that top flight managers were not prepared to pay in order to avail of his gifts and he has played just 112 Premier League games over the course of four seasons. In a better team, people liked to believe, he could have excelled bit none, it seemed, particularly wanted him.
He could probably have had a few more games for Ireland but the timing of his retirement makes a fair amount of sense. He will be missed, though, and it is sad that in an age when coaches are increasing risk averse, the game seems to produce too few players like Hoolahan.
Ireland, in any case, will be lucky to have another any time soon.