A Short Extract From My Unwritten Memoir, ft. Wes Hoolahan

On Saturday evening, and then the following Tuesday, Ireland play Denmark with the chance to go to the World Cup in Russia. They aren’t favourites; if they win it will be a superb achievement and Ireland’s first World Cup finals in 16 years. If they don’t win, of course, we can expect outbreak of one of Irish soccer’s favourite pastimes. There will be more debate about one of Irish soccer’s great cause célèbre, Wesley Hoolahan. Almost everyone will say that Hoolahan should have played. If he plays, they’ll say he should have started; if he starts, they’ll wonder why he was taken off. At 35, Hoolahan can’t be expected to complete two games in three days, so they’ll definitely be reliable room for complaint. It’s a cliché to complain about Hoolahan’s omission, but things tend to become clichés when they are true.

In the future we’ll nostalgically sigh as we remember Hoolahan’s artistry and craft, the ferocious control of that right-foot volley he smashed in against Sweden, or the glorious cross that gave Robbie Brady that winning goal against Italy; Wes Hoolahan, at 35, is still comfortably the most skillful Irish footballer in the squad. It’s easy to forget how late this phase of his career came. When Eamon Dunphy began hollering for Wes Hoolahan to be in the team – this was just before Euro 2012 – more than a few Irish fans said “Who?”

I saw Wes Hoolahan play when he was in his prime, or rather when he was nearly 28 (28 is a magical age, and has been decreed the point when every player is In His Prime). It was March 2010, for Norwich City against Huddersfield Town. It was a League One game – in other words, the third tier of the English game, comprising the teams ranked forty-fifty to sixty-eighth best in the country.

I didn’t make the trek to West Yorkshire because I’d heard an Irish midfielder was one of League One’s best players that year. I went because I’m a Huddersfield Town fan, because I usually got the ferry over for half a dozen games a year (sleeping on the floor of the Holyhead ferry terminus is an experience with which I’m worryingly familiar), and because Huddersfield v Norwich was a big game. Town had been taken over by Dean Hoyle – the chairman who’s now, absurdly and gloriously, taken them to the Premier League – and a burst of optimism had supplanted the gloom that has been around the club for the previous four or five years. Town were in fifth, with a new man in charge (Lee Clark, a bright young manager who would soon enough become a cynical old one) and a host of young, attacking players*. Norwich, meanwhile, had suffered the humiliation of being hammered 7-1 by Colchester in their first game of the season; they had promptly hired the Colchester manager, Paul Lambert, and galloped to the top of the table. Hoolahan was getting a lot of praise as a tricky attacking midfielder, but most of the attention was going to Grant Holt – a whole-hearted, if clumsy, centre-forward who was having one of those seasons where he scored every time he touched the ball. He already had 25 or so for the season.

I was slightly curious about Hoolahan – I could remember him playing for Shelbourne in the Champions League against Deportivo La Coruna, where he was the only player who looked entirely at home against one of the best teams in Europe. I’d lost track of him since, but it was nice to see that a League of Ireland player had (apparently) made a solid career for himself. None of that changed my priorities, of course; the career of Wes Hoolahan was a fair way less important than Huddersfield Town’s promotion push. The question of club v country allegiance is an odd one, especially for Irish fans who have no particular link to the teams they support, and most of us manage it with a crude cognitive dissonance. Liverpool fans will cheer on Everton’s Séamus Coleman while he’s in an Ireland jersey; once he’s back in a blue shirt, they’ll scream for their centre half to clog him into the stand. I was generous enough not to mind if Hoolahan played well, provided it had no bearing on the game; I’d even have been content for him to score a blinding solo effort, so long as we were at least three goals up at the time. But all I really wanted was for Huddersfield to smash Norwich 5-0, and if Wes Hoolahan gave away a penalty and got sent off in the third minute, then so much the better.

Unusually, both teams started off as if they knew what I needed from the match and were happy enough to deliver it. After a couple of minutes we won a corner, from which Neal Trotman scored a scrappy goal; Town went on to dominate a gloriously entertaining game. We should really have been three up after that first hour – we hit the bar from another corner, and intricate passing moves put both Jordan Rhodes and Lee Novak through on goal, only for both to carefully place the ball inches past the post. Just before half-time the Town fans, drunk on the exuberant performance, started singing “Top of the league? You’re having a laugh!”

I didn’t join in. It was partly because I knew how games like this worked, that we needed to bury Norwich while we had the chance, that top-of-the-league sides punished that sort of profligacy. But more specifically… there had been a point in the first half when Hoolahan had picked up the ball on the left, ambled infield, and played a perfectly-weighted pass to an onrushing Norwich attacker. It had come to nothing, but in that moment it was clear that Norwich were dangerous, and that Hoolahan had the ability to pick us apart. He scared me whenever he got the ball, after that. He was a composed but incisive player; whenever he picked it up in an advanced position, he seemed to be testing us out and figuring the precise way to cut us open. As the second half wore on he seemed to find bigger and bigger spaces, and although Huddersfield continued to push forward, the defence seemed to be getting more and more stretched.

The inevitable happened with twenty minutes to go, when Hoolahan darted down the wing and pinged an inch-perfect cross that Holt tapped in from six yards. Five minutes later it happened again – he floated out right to pick it up, jinked infield with the ball, and drew a couple of Town defenders towards him before releasing their fullback to the by-line; another low cross, another tap-in, and Norwich were ahead. Town had a golden opportunity to equalise a couple of minutes later, after a terrible back-pass put Lee Novak clean through on goal, but by then everyone in the stadium knew that the narrative of the game was set and inescapable – there was barely a flicker of excitement, and Novak obliged us by making an astonishing hames of going around the keeper. Norwich soon added a third, Hoolahan involved in the build-up again. The Norwich fans chanted “Top of the league? We’re having a laugh!” at us, and we deserved it.

*

I overheard two Norwich fans talking about Hoolahan after the game. “Wes is class, isn’t he? He is a quality player.”

The cliché-ridden footballspeak of fans and pundits is often mocked, and not always in a way that’s fair. You can describe most players’ abilities in specific, tangible terms – Giggs’ pace and balance, Keane’s ferocity, Drogba’s strength, Suarez’s energy. But there are some players – not that many – who are harder to sum up like that. They aren’t that much faster or stronger or quick-footed, they’re no more accurate with a sixty yard pass than half the players in the team… and yet somehow their passes have more bite, and they always seem to have more time on the ball (Andrea Pirlo, who just retired, is a glittering example of that kind of player). They’re the ones who have us falling back on clichés, on “pure class” and “quality player.” Broadsheet journalists talk about players with poise, or guile, or vision, but these are just fancier-sounding versions of the same vague nothings. What struck me about Hoolahan that day was his awareness – he seemed to know where every player was on the pitch, whether they were one yard behind him or seventy yards in front – but what does that actually mean?

Part of that awareness is quickness of mind, of course, but class and quality are probably comprised of a thousand tiny, specific things. Hoolahan’s close control was excellent, which meant he didn’t have to watch it onto his foot, which meant he could play with his head up and see more. He was agile enough to turn quickly and so two-footed that he could go either way, which meant players were wary of diving in to tackle him, which meant he could take longer to pick his passes. He tended to either pass the ball that fraction quicker than anyone expected, before the defenders were set… or he would hold onto it a fraction longer, drawing players towards him before letting it go and taking them out of the game. He knew when to come short for the ball, and when to look for a pass over the top. In short… well, he was class. A quality player.

*

So after I saw Hoolahan destroy Huddersfield without breaking sweat, did I immediately start telling all and sundry he should be on the Ireland side? No. In fact, it didn’t even cross my mind that I’d see him in an Ireland jersey. Ireland players weren’t playing in League One at 27, just as they weren’t still playing in the League of Ireland at 23. Ireland players left Shelbourne to play for Liverpool, not some Scottish team called Livingston that you’d never heard of. I just thought he’d be found out at the highest level; he wouldn’t have as much time on the ball, he’d be closed down, the extra pace of the Premier League would do for him. In all honesty, I blithely and implicitly trusted the whole infrastructure of English football. I just assumed that the scouting system was foolproof, that twenty big, professional clubs with scouting networks everywhere couldn’t possibly let top class players slip through the cracks. If Hoolahan was that good, he’d be in the Premier League. End of story.

And I was wrong, of course. Hoolahan looked a street better than anyone else on that pitch because he really was, just as he really was on a par with Deportivo’s Spanish internationals those few years before. All that foolproof scouting infrastructure was crazily flawed, and he’d been passed over as a teenager by innumerable scouts for no good reason at all. The infallible system decided that he was too small to make the grade, and had no metric for class and quality.

Ultimately, Wes Hoolahan has been terribly unlucky. He was young in the early noughties, when received wisdom in most countries was that all players had to be muscular and powerful (this was when Inter Milan took a slight, graceful Brazilian called Ronaldo and turned him into a bulked-up, injury-prone wreck). Ten years later, the success of players like Xavi and Iniesta might just have shown England’s clubs how idiotic it was to ignore small men; ten years earlier, when English teams were full of big men with very limited ability, there were vacancies for anyone who could show some skill and their size was a secondary concern. And of course, there were places where small, intricate players would always prosper – a Spanish Wes Hoolahan would probably have had a good career in La Liga, regardless of when he was around.

So there would be something glorious about Hoolahan making the World Cup. He’s had the whole of soccer’s infrastructure against him for most of his sporting life, and he wasn’t even a semi-regular in the Ireland team until he was in his thirties. He almost certainly won’t play in the first leg in Denmark; he probably won’t start in the second, but might make an appearance if Ireland need a goal. Martin O’Neill doesn’t quite trust him, you see, even though he tackles back as much as any midfield player. Trappatoni didn’t trust him, either. Nor did Chris Hughton, who took over after Hoolahan’s first, superb season in the Premier League, and slowly demoted him to an occasional starter (Norwich were relegated the following year). He’ll be 36 when the World Cup comes around, just old enough to make an impact – to play just the right pass at just the right time, to trick one more defender and slide a shot home, to pick one more glorious cross. One more moment to add to a career that’s had nowhere near as many highs as it deserved, but far more than he would have expected in March 2010. And then he’ll retire, and we’ll get old, and we tell our kids and grandkids as about him in the years to come. Ah, yes. Hoolahan. Wes Hoolahan. He was… class. A quality player.

*There were four players in that Huddersfield line-up who I thought were shoe-ins for great things. There was Lee Peltier, a classy fullback; Anthony Pilkington, an outrageously talented winger; and Jordan Rhodes, a prolific young striker. The fourth, anchoring our midfield, was a young Danny Drinkwater – he’s gone on to win the Premier League and play for England, and is now with Chelsea. The others have had solid Championship careers, and Pilkington and Rhodes have made a few international appearances, but they’ve never quite established themselves in the Premier League (although Pilkington had one excellent season in the top flight, with Norwich). I’d have rated Drinkwater third-best of the four, which either shows that a: it’s impossible to predict who’ll go on to success or b: I’m crap at judging players.

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