There’s a clip online from a 2004 Champions League qualifier between Shelbourne and Hadjuk Split which gives a hint where all this was going to lead.
As the ball drops outside the Croatian’s box, a Shelbourne player controls it, plants a defender on his backside with a dragback, takes three defenders out with a silky pirouette and pokes the ball forward where it works through to Glenn Fitzpatrick to score for the Irish side. The footage is grainy but something in the unmistakable balance and style of the motion shouts it can only be Wes Hoolahan.
Twelve years back he was already doing his thing, looking the most un-Irish of footballers with that movement between lines and creative use of space. Yet even then it wasn’t necessarily as straight-forward as you’d have expected.
A few weeks later he’d stroll around Lansdowne and not look out of place next to Mauro Silva and Juan Valeron and yet in between those two memorable Deportivo La Coruna games, Pat Fenlon had to explain why he’d left the young midfielder out of the team that season at times, how Hoolahan had needed to adapt the way he played, how the three in midfield allowed him license in European games.
Sound familiar? It hasn’t changed a lot since, this sense of managers knowing they need Hoolahan’s talents and yet not always knowing how to fit him in, a strange zone where managers – and Alex Neill, Neil Adams, Chris Hughton, Paul Lambert have all gone through this at Norwich – aren’t sure whether to build the team around him or leave him out altogether.
If Martin O’Neill has come around to the idea he needs Hoolahan and has gradually been developing a diamond formation that suits him, Trapattoni basically decided he couldn’t change shape and affect stability to accommodate one player he wasn’t sure about anyway.
It’s not that O’Neill has succeeded yet in making Wes an obvious focus for the game-plan. For all the neat touches and willingness to receive ball, we’ve not yet seen him influence games creatively with goals and assists for Ireland. There was a gorgeous soft outside-of-foot pass in behind Gibraltar’s defence to tee up Robbie Keane but his only direct assist was a nod-back from a corner for Shane Long’s goal against Poland. Ireland haven’t always managed to get him on the ball in the right places to do damage and it’s generally been an issue of style.
Ireland aren’t a possession team, their pass completion hasn’t been high in the bigger games and they hit more than 60 long balls in each game Hoolahan started at home to Scotland, Germany and Bosnia. Hence for long spells he’s been living off knockdowns and loose balls in midfield. Away in Bosnia, the game was in its 28th minute before Hoolahan actually took a pass from an Irish player and moved it onto another Irish jersey; he ended up making just eight successful passes all game. In the home game that went up to just 10 completed passes. There’ve been long stretcheswhere Ireland’s tendency to go long has just taken Hoolahan out of games.
There are positional issues here. Ireland simply hasn’t had a No 10 of this ilk before where they’ve had to look to play passes through the lines to find a player in space - perhaps Stephen Ireland had the most similar skill set but he wasn’t around long enough to carve a proper role at international level.
Ireland remains set up to be more a Walters team than a Hoolahan as the group has hummed more to the rhythm of the Stoke forward than the more thoughtful combinations from Hoolahan. In that home game with Bosnia, Walters won five aerial challenges and got fouled for three others which suggests the type of ball being played forward.
There have of course been glimpses. Hoolahan was tidy and composed with his 24 passes against Germany even if it didn’t lead to a glut of chances. He cut Georgia open a couple of times with clever one-twos at the edge of the box to set up chances for Keane and Walters. He slipped in Robbie Brady down the left wing a few times in a sparky opening half-hour at home to Bosnia. In the Scotland home game, we got more than a snapshot - Brady picked Hoolahan out with a lovely pass from left-back into midfield to open up a counterattack, Hoolahan turned away from Scott Brown into open space running at the opposition defence and slid a slide-rule pass into Daryl Murphy down the left channel.
Against Slovakia, for 30 minutes, Hoolahan made the team tick and there was one particular double one-two with McClean and then Long which created a cross into the box and offered a window into how he could alter the dynamic Ireland’s attack, depending on what’s going on around him.
At one point last September Hoolahan, with five, had the most assists across the top five leagues in Europe and he ended the season with four goals and eight assists for Norwich. However by season’s end, Alex Neill couldn’t fit him in the team for massive relegation games. Hoolahan goes into his first tournament a key player somehow fighting for relevance, which seems in keeping with the story so far.
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