Why did Wes Hoolahan remain in the League of Ireland so long?
You’d wonder how so many scouts would have overlooked such a talent. After all, legend has it he spent his entire youth doing nothing but kicking a ball around the streets of Dublin. Just loving football, just working on his talent, just honing his skills. Nobody knows if he ever ate or went to school, but he certainly never went anywhere without a ball at his feet. So how could so many clubs have decided he wasn’t good enough?
There are other questions to ponder this week following the news of his international retirement. Some are focused only on the career of Hoolahan himself, while others explore the broader issues of Irish football. People are having digs at successive Ireland managers for not selecting him sooner or more often.
They’re wondering what it says about the football culture in this country that a talent like his could not have been embraced, or at least accommodated, earlier than it was.
And they’re asking how could so many scouts from the UK have gotten it so wrong for so long? And why was Livingston the best club he could get when he finally left Ireland in 2006? They were relegated from that season’s Scottish Premier League, after all, finishing bottom of the league and 15 points behind the second worst team.
In October 2003, after some persistent badgering on my part, Millwall's chief scout went to Tolka Park to have a look for himself. He was the scout that first spotted Teddy Sheringham and countless others over the years. I had just retired from playing and was working as a consultant for Hoolahan's agent.
I was hoping to use my personal contacts to push through a move. I raved about his technique and his ability. Overlook the physique, I said, this fella can play.
His Shelbourne team were awful in the first half and trailed 2-0 to Shamrock Rovers at half-time. Hoolahan was playing on the right wing and had little impact. They turned things round in the second half and won 4-2, but it wasn’t a good night for him personally. The scout was dismissive of the overall standard and of Hoolahan himself. Back to the drawing board.
What was known to observers at the time, though, and may have been picked up by the scout that evening, was that Hoolahan’s lifestyle was working against him. Whatever about his talent, if he was hoping to be taken seriously at the highest levels of the game, he was going about it all the wrong way. Forget the football-loving wonderkid you imagine him to have been back in the day, there were several rough edges that required attention.
That probably jars a little with other narratives. Some would have you believe it’s a failing of the game itself that a player of his physique wasn’t signed earlier. That we’re so one-dimensional as a footballing nation that small skilful types have no place. That bigger, more limited players catch the eye because of their size and that the priorities of our approach need to be questioned.
All of these theories are most probably true, but they don’t take from the fact that a player is ultimately responsible for his own fitness and lifestyle and that Hoolahan’s, back then, required some tweaking. Being one of the standout players in your League of Ireland team is not enough to make you an obvious choice for clubs abroad.
In saying all of that, it’s hard not to feel some regret for him for how things went with the Ireland team. There were times when it was hard not to feel sorry for him, frustrated on his behalf for his lack of selection. His comments earlier this week gave no hint that he feels that way but from a distance it was difficult to understand how he was left out so often.
He was more comfortable in possession than any other Ireland international. He worked as hard as anyone else. He had vision and skill that set him apart. He had composure on the ball that is almost impossible to coach, and he took whatever came his way like a model pro. Despite so many times when the media went probing for some hurt, he was never even faintly critical of any Ireland manager.
While it’s hard not to imagine what might have been for Hoolahan – and indeed Ireland – had things been a little different, some perspective is required too.
He departs with some pretty outstanding memories. He played for 90 minutes in the 1-0 win over Germany. He scored against Sweden in the Euros and provided the pass for Robbie Brady’s winner against Italy. He had a lead role in some of most iconic international results of recent times. He played 43 times in total and, to judge by his words this week, he feels nothing but gratitude and pride. Not many of us would have predicted any of this back in 2003.
I can’t imagine he was overly comfortable with the attention he received every time he was omitted from an Ireland starting line-up. He’s not the kind that revels under such a spotlight. Even if he played and didn’t do well, people said it was the tactical failings of the coach that limited his effectiveness. I’m sure he got plenty of stick about it from the other Ireland players – the darling of the media, the hero of the fans, the saviour of Irish football that can’t get a game.
He didn’t get to where he got to because he learned how to play football on the street and wasn’t held back solely because of his lack of stature. He needed to live his life in ways that were compatible with professional football and when he did his talent took him the rest of the way. He’s delighted with all he’s achieved so we shouldn’t dwell on what he missed out on.