Robbie Savage: ‘If you’re relying on Wes Hoolahan in Cardiff, you might go out’

Robbie Savage is confused. Has been since Monday evening when he heard some bloke on Irish TV going on and on about Wes Hoolahan and how the Republic of Ireland would have beaten Georgia in Tbilisi last weekend had the Norwich City player been picked, writes Brendan O’Brien.

The BT pundit shared his bemusement on Twitter and was duly told that the guy in studio was Eamon Dunphy, that he had played a bit of ball himself and that, like him or loathe him, ‘The Dunph’ wasn’t the only Irishman who tends to wax lyrical about Weso.

It’s a fixation that has the former Welsh international puzzled.

BT Sport football analyst Robbie Savage was in Dublin yesterday to promote the BT Sport line-up on the eir Sport Pack. Picture: Morgan Treacy

“There was a comment like: ‘If Wes played against Georgia we’d have got three points’, which I find quite hard to believe: The reliance on Wes Hoolahan, a 35-year-old guy who doesn’t play consistently in the Championship.

“Martin O’Neill was getting criticised for performances but it’s a tough place to go, Georgia. They should have beat Wales in Cardiff, yet Martin goes there and, yes, the team didn’t play well, but a pundit, a respected pundit as I found out, says these things which I thought were nonsense.”

Savage, in Dublin this week for the launch of the latest eir Sport Pack, made it clear that he wasn’t doing Hoolahan down. If anything, he felt sorry for him having to shoulder the burden of such expectation. As for Dunphy? He actually admires the man’s controversial tendencies now.

What he can’t figure out though is how a nation of Ireland’s size is so dependent on an ageing footballer from England’s second-tier. It says a lot, he feels, and he stresses the point by claiming that only a fit Seamus Coleman would make the Wales XI.

Other points are hammered home, too: Ireland has less Premier League pedigree than Wales and they have no superstar like Gareth Bale. They have no Roy Keanes, Damian Duffs or Robbie Keanes. They are, basically, fourth seeds in Group D for a reason.

All valid points.

“If you look at the Premier League, you will finish, relatively speaking, where your wage budget is in the Premier League. The top teams finish top, because their wage budget is higher and the team near the bottom and mid-table usually finish there because of their wage budget.

“I look at Ireland and the squad Martin O’Neill has and they are the fourth-best team. At the start of the campaign, if you said: ‘We could win in Cardiff to finish second, I’m sure you’d have taken that.’ Serbia are the best side.”

Savage’s views from outside the bubble of the Irish game are a welcome change of tack, but his defence of O’Neill should be viewed through the prism that the Derryman was his boss at Leicester City for three years in the late 1990s.

He find criticisms of any manager difficult to take, on the basis that those pointing the fingers have never felt the isolation of standing on a touchline and he returns time and again to the scarcity of resources available to his old gaffer in this latest posting.

In fairness, Savage delivers his views with gusto. Those asking the questions yesterday were challenged to come up with their own solutions when Ireland’s many ills are mentioned and he added in a few areas of concern himself.

“He’ll be devastated. I spoke to him on Monday. He’ll be thinking about it and trying to put it right, feeling like the worst guy. Do you think Ireland deserve to go to the World Cup? Man City won the first five games last season but didn’t win the league.

“Nine goals in the group? How many players in that Ireland side have scored goals in the Premier League this season or towards the end of last season? How many goal- scorers do you have scoring regularly in the top league in the world? But you’re still in it.”

Wales have seen to that. Chris Coleman’s side followed up a group opening 4-0 defeat of Moldova with five straight draws, but defeats of Austria and Moldova this last week have leapfrogged them over Ireland and into second place behind the Serbs. The Welsh have finally engineered some momentum and, while Savage doesn’t feel they have played that well at any point throughout this qualifying campaign, he has seen a side that is adept at grinding out the results needed to keep hope alive.

“They know what they’re doing. They play three at the back and whether you want to play with two No 10s, [Aaron] Ramsey or [Joe] Allen, the formation is set in stone and the good thing is, if one player is out, another comes in and knows exactly what they’re doing.”

If Bale was the key driver in making the Euro finals, then the likes of Ramsey, Hal Robson-Kanu, and Ben Woodburn have stepped up to the plate more recently and Savage sees only one winner when the sides meet in Cardiff next month.

“I’m sure they could fill the Principality for Ireland, but the 30,000 at the Cardiff City Stadium makes for an electric atmosphere and in the big moments Wales produce. The big difference is Wales have got players who can produce in the big moments.

“Aaron Ramsey scored in FA Cup finals. Gareth Bale, three European Cups. Big moments, big players step up and, unfortunately for Ireland, if you’re relying on Wes Hoolahan to go to Cardiff and be the best player on the park, you might go out.”

This story first appeared in the Irish Examiner.


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