“I’m 34 now and for the opportunity to come now…”
The sentence trailed away, but Wes Hoolahan had already echoed in those 10 words what thousands of Irish supporters in Saint-Denis must have been thinking as they left the emotion and drama of Stade de France behind.
There is no need to pick over again the interminable path the Dubliner had to take to trade his wares on such an elite stage, but it is difficult not to play the what-might-have-been game, given the years he spent toiling in the international wilderness.
“Wes is a top player and a very different player to what we have in the squad,” said Seamus Coleman. “He links play, gets in behind defences and makes intelligent passes. It’s great for Wes, the journey he’s been on, to be showing it on the European stage. It’s fantastic.”
Hoolahan answered the last doubters here. His wispy frame has always stood against him, and accusations that he was too easily brushed from the ball at this level have not been easy to counter, but he withstood the physical attention of more imposing Swedish muscle last night.
His vision was the spring that launched Ireland’s thrust. Situations that routinely appear terminal for Irish possession or momentum when others in green shirts have the ball are afforded the kiss of life when the Norwich City player has his fingers on the pulse.
“It was great for him to get on the scoresheet, he’s shown his quality there on the pitch. Not many people can get it off Wes,” said Jonathan Walters. “He’s not the quickest, but he can drop the shoulder and move two yards past you. He’s a great player and a great asset for us.”
The goal, appropriately, was a thing of beauty. Shaping his body to meet Seamus Coleman’s cross from the right side of the penalty area, he caught it sweetly on the half-volley. The whole setup and execution bore more than a passing resemblance to the goal Jason McAteer claimed against the Dutch in Dublin 15 years before.
“I just seen Seamus pick it, he drove inside, he clipped it in back stick and it came on the half-volley and I caught it nicely,” Hoolahan explained. “Over the moon. Delighted. Buzzing. Seeing the Ireland fans there cheering, it was amazing.”
Even sweeter for him was the presence on that side of the ground of his family and it was no shock when he suggested it may well have been his best goal. It certainly looked like being the most valuable and would have been, had Ireland not retreated with their booty.
Fatigue did for Hoolahan eventually, and he seemed to suggest it had a part to play in the changing ebb and flow of a game which Sweden finished stronger, but the disappointment in conceding the equaliser and two points couldn’t mask the positives.
Giovanni Trapattoni routinely talked down the abilities of his players, but Martin O’Neill has taken the polar opposite approach and he was rewarded yesterday with a performance that restored Irish pride after the routs suffered in Poland four years ago.
“I think they were stunned by our performance,” said Hoolahan when asked about Sweden’s failure to mount anything approaching a consistent threat before his goal.
“The way we played, the way we passed the ball, I think we did really well.”
One more quibble still remains to be dispelled. His ability to play big games in close order has always been questioned. O’Neill started him in seven of the last eight games in qualifying, including the play-offs. The one exception was the visit to Warsaw three days after the defeat of Germany at the Aviva Stadium.
O’Neill won’t leave him out this time. How could he?
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