Replacing gifted Hoolahan a conundrum for Ireland

Although there was no great surprise in news of his retirement, already the cavity in the Ireland team created by Wes Hoolahan’s absence is being sorely mourned, writes John Fallon

Daryl Murphy was capable of providing a goal in times of need, while the solidity of John O’Shea, should as expected he also depart the international scene, will be missed but there’ll be something uniquely deficient from the withdrawal as an option of Hoolahan’s skillset.

Equating those traits to Lionel Messi, as his most ardent supporter Eamon Dunphy tried to, is to stretch it, yet the diminutive Dubliner was the closest we had to a playmaker hewn from the traditional virtues of South American artistry.

With the shake of his hips or drop of either shoulder, Hoolahan could evade the attentions of an opponent in an instant. Pace naturally eludes players as they age but as one who never possessed that trait, in many ways his value mushroomed entering his 30s.

As Sean St Ledger, a teammate with Ireland and adversary at club level, noted last night: “Once Wes got past you, although he wasn’t quick, there was no getting the ball off him. It was as it if was glued to his foot.”

For a player spoken of in such glowing terms, an analysis of his career can only bemoan the fact he earned all but one of his 43 caps after passing his 30th birthday.

His height, just 5’6” of him, was frequently cited for his belated arrival on the international scene.

Extinguishing that argument, though, was the showreel of his greatest moments in an Ireland jersey, including Ireland’s first goal at the Euro 2016 in a 1-1 draw with Sweden and a peach of a cross for Robbie Brady to head them into the knockout stages in France.

It was those cameos which made fans believe he could drive Ireland into successive major tournaments. His first contribution to the World Cup quest gave evidence to enhance the belief, as his threaded pass in Vienna provided James McClean the channel to burst through and down Austria.

Unlike the previous tilt, however, there would be no late surge.

In a turgid play-off against Denmark, Hoolahan was kept on the bench for both legs, only being thrust into the fray in Dublin when Ireland were chasing a lost cause. It wasn’t the ending to his Ireland career he wanted.

“It’s a mixture of things that led me to make this decision but mainly age, I will be 36 soon, I’ll be 38 when the next Euros come around, so it’s time to move aside,” the 35-year-old Norwich City player said.

“I don’t feel frustrated that I won the number of caps I did, or that the Ireland thing came late in my career.

“I loved every minute of it. It was an honour and I’m happy with the 43 caps I got.”

As a player marked out in his teens as a special talent, others feel it was a paltry return and not through any fault of his.

It is well known how Hoolahan was overlooked by the major English clubs while playing for his local club Belvedere, gaining only a contract invitation from Ipswich Town.

Shelbourne was his first senior club, and he won three League of Ireland titles before moving to Livingston and on to Blackpool, where he made his international debut in 2008.

A move to Norwich quickly followed but further internatinal recognition didn’t, eventually being granted his second cap by Giovanni Trapattoni in a friendly against Greece in November 2012.

The Italian’s rigid 4-4-2 philosophy discarded his prowess until Martin O’Neill introduced a different outlook when arriving for the Euro 2016 qualification campaign.

“At times I thought I wouldn’t get the chance to play but you get your head down, work away with your club and hope that it comes around for you,” he said about the Trapattoni era.

“Still, I was delighted that when Martin got the Ireland job he picked me, and his record speaks for itself in terms of the number of times he picked me, I think I am the third most-capped player under Martin.”

Norwich, for whom he’s racked up more than 300 appearances and is a fully fledged inductee of their Hall of Fame, will continue to benefit from Hoolahan’s exuberance while Ireland seek a suitably qualified replacement.

That mantle will be difficult for a sole candidate to shoulder as there will only ever be one Wes.

This story first appeared on IrishExaminer.com

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