Wes Hoolahan’s performances at Euro 2016 garnered the accolade of nationwide recognition based on a single name. ‘Wes’ was synonymous with a style of play Ireland dreamt about.
In a final farewell to two club legends, last year Norwich City hosted a Russell Martin versus Wes Hoolahan testimonial game at Carrow Road. Midway through the match, the Irish playmaker demonstrated precisely why he was worthy of such a gesture.
Hoolahan managed to find space between the opposition’s back four and midfield. This was the hole where he consistently made his home in Ireland and the UK.
With a deft touch he simultaneously collected the ball and spun, driving at the final lines of defenders. Dancing past attempted slide tackles, he strode into the box, delicately chipped the ball over the goalkeeper and even celebrated with a tumble.
For a notoriously reticent individual, the attention that came with all that was associated with such a day wasn’t exactly welcome. But it was for a noble cause as it raised €18,700 for Temple Street Hospital and he got an opportunity to do the one thing he always wanted: to play football.
“I let Russ do most of the other stuff with media or whatever. He loves that sort of thing. I was just happy to be there,” he says with a grin.
“It was special, one last game for the club I spent most of my career at. Over 20,000 people turned up at a testimonial game. That was amazing and it went to a good cause.”
He is speaking from a park bench in Newcastle, New South Wales, where he has been since last August. After leaving Norwich he spent a season with West Brom and briefly trained with Cambridge before the Australian opportunity presented itself.
He has just returned to action having been sidelined for six months when he injured his ankle shortly after his arrival. It meant a lot of time alone. The one thing that kept him going as he rehabbed was the fact that at the end of it all he would get to play again. It was that simple. Progressing from a hand bike to the pool to a road bike so that eventually, he would get back on the pitch.
It was a love affair forged in the heartland of Dublin’s north inner city.
Hoolahan recalls a childhood where school was just an interruption between the morning and afternoon bouts of football. There was many an argument at home over who got to read the Herald first when it landed in the door with the local football news.
That devotion took him to the UK and beyond. Australia wasn’t really on the radar, but a move abroad was.
“I always wanted to do something different before my career comes to an end. A different challenge and adventure. It was strange. A small part of you thinks, ‘ah I’ll just hang up the boots I don’t want to move anymore.’
I never seriously thought about it. But at 36, you’re thinking, ‘I’ve been at Norwich ten years. I’m comfortable!’ I suppose I was fortunate enough to spend ten years at one club.”
He has given the game plenty. In return, it has given him everything. Steady doses of a special sensation over and over again.
“I need the buzz. Do you know what I mean? I have a routine. I wake up knowing I have training. I wake up looking forward to that.
Playing football every day. This is what I will do, this is what I will eat, this is when I’m on holiday. When that stops, players look around thinking, ‘what do I do now?’ It will be hard to adapt to that.
“I love playing football. Even there, in that training session today, I loved running around. That buzz is always there. It is just in you. I played since I was a kid and even when I finish, I will play five aside with my mates.”
It is 20 years since Mick Neville invited the Belvedere youngster to train with Shelbourne. He had just started out on the FÁS course with Bohemians legend Billy Young but wasn’t sure where he was headed.
What he did know was football. Since then it has undergone drastic change: ever increasing financial force, a booming digital dimension, mundane media requirements.
Hoolahan cares little for any of that.
“It has changed so much since I first started. The Instagram and stuff like that, it is just a different world. I never really did it. I always said my job is to play football and that is it. Unfortunately, the other side of the coin is media stuff comes with it. It is just the way I am.
“I wasn’t really a fan of social media either. As you get older, it comes with the times. But back then I had no interest. I didn’t even have a phone when I started. I got my first phone when I was 21. I didn’t start driving until I was 24. I guess I was just old school.”
The 37-year old has huge affection for the places where he played his football. The League of Ireland Premier Division medals he won with Shelbourne are still in the Dublin home he grew up in. His mother wouldn’t have it any other way: “You were in this house when you won them so that’s where they belong.”
Norwich became a second home and it’s likely he’ll return there when he does ultimately retire. In Newcastle he has three pillars: his house, a beach, the pitch.
As for the football in the A-League, the midfielder is impressed with the quality. Occasionally, conditions can severely alter that.
“Sometimes I think when it is very warm, the pitches are dry, it is hard to play decent football. When the pitches are wet and the humidity is down, the play is very good.
“I think the lads played in 39 degrees a few weeks ago. Those are tough conditions.”
Style of play was always crucial for his unique skillset.
He laughs as he recalls the time word came through that Stoke City, then under the stewardship of Tony Pulis, were interested in his services: “I was thinking, how would that work? No chance. I wouldn’t see the ball!”
As he discusses formations and shape, Hoolahan moves his hands around the table to demonstrate. It is as if he is visualising two strikers up top, one coming short, the other in behind and himself in the hole feeding the ball through.
That was the system in his favourite formation, the 4-4-2 diamond Paul Lambert utilised at Norwich.
With Ireland it was different. One up front, Hoolahan in behind. That was what worked at the 2016 European Championships. His career highlight.
There are many cherished mementos. When Norwich first broke into the Premier League, there was often a beeline towards high profile opponents in search of their shirt: Giggs, Scholes, Gerrard. The dressing room would be erupting with wails of ‘who’d you get?’
“I’ve a few that I have kept. I wish I got a bit more, I never really asked. I just wasn’t as forward as others.”
But the jerseys he values most are his old Irish ones, particularly from the 2016 Euros.
His performances in green garnered the accolade of nationwide recognition based on a single name. ‘Wes’ was a statement synonymous with a style of play Ireland dreamt about.
Because everyone knew Wes, everyone assumes they knew his story. An overhanging one is that his Ireland career was somewhat unfulfilled. His incredible talent underutilised. This is a perception he baulks at.
“I was thrilled to get 42 caps. Starting off when I did with Belvo and Shelbourne, it was only a dream to play for my country. At those Euros, I just had an amazing experience. To get out of that group, to score, to set up Robbie… that was a great time. In my career, I never, ever thought I should play more. You get on with it.”
It is just over two years since Denmark demolished Ireland and Wes walked away. Has he ever reconsidered it?
“I actually knew weeks before, if we lost that game I was finished. I just thought it was the right time. You just know. I never thought back on it or considered reversing it. I’m not one for regrets.”
As for his approach, he is not so sure it can be replicated in the UK’s academy systems.
“The way I grew up, playing on the roads, that worked for my trade. I was still kicking on the street with my friends when I was 18, 19. I’d play for Shels, go home and play with my friends.
“It is a bit more honest. Whether that be trying to smash people or play it off the wall. I used to love nutmegging people. If you are at an underage Premier League team, you can’t really do that.”
Football is his livelihood but above that, Hoolahan is a genuine fan.
After the move Down Under, he made sure he had the means to record Premier League games and watch them back the next morning. There are two teams’ results he will always check: Norwich and Shelbourne.
Above all else, he is a fan of Ireland.
The Dubliner is at his most animated when he discusses Jack Byrne’s exploits in the domestic league or the performances of young Irish midfielder Jayson Molumby with Millwall. The glut of young talent breaking through brings him immense excitement.
Wes Hoolahan is happy, looking forward to a future in Australia and doing some coaching after that. Most of all, he is excited for football to return, yearning for the opportunity to support Ireland.
“I watch now purely as a fan. It wouldn’t bother me what way they play or anything like that. I’m just like ‘win, please.’ Get to the Euros. A few games in the Aviva, that’d be magic. I’d be optimistic they can beat Slovakia whenever that is played and then it’s Bosnia or Northern Ireland.
“Imagine playing Northern Ireland up there for the final spot? That is one game I would love to play in. Packed out ground, huge stakes, I’d nearly come out of retirement for that!”