Football

'This Little Lad Can’t Be Playing' - How Wes Hoolahan Grew Up To Show How Irish Football Has Gone Wrong

'This Little Lad Can’t Be Playing' - How Wes Hoolahan Grew Up To Show How Irish Football Has Gone Wrong

Genius makes a mockery of its cradle, and Wes Hoolahan's was no different.

Amid the relative obscurity of Fairview Park on an autumnal Sunday afternoon, a 15-year-old Wes Hoolahan exhibited the kind of craft that belonged on a much larger stage.

Alan Cawley remembers his first sighting of Hoolahan vividly. He had signed a contract agreement with Leeds United, and would make the move to England as a 16-year-old. Until then, the club wanted Cawley to test himself at the highest level possible domestically and Vincent Butler, involved at youth level with Ireland at the time, linked Cawley with Belvedere.

Among Cawley's teammates was Wes Hoolahan. Not that it was immediately obvious.

The first Sunday I went up I didn’t know anybody but Vincent. He introduced me to the manager and the players, including Weso.

Wes didn’t look like a teammate when I first met him, he was about half the size he is now and a lot slimmer.

Being so small, I didn’t even think he was a player.

This little lad caught my eye during the warm-up, but I presumed he was one of the coaches' kids and had tagged along to see the match. Then the manager began handing out the jerseys, and when it came to number 11, he threw it to Wes. In my head I was thinking, ‘this can’t be right, this little lad can’t be playing’.

Before the game I gave my warm-up top to my Dad on the sideline. He had noticed this too, and said to me, ‘the little lad can’t be playing’.

Boy, did he play.

We went out, and lo and behold, the little lad was amazing!

He was putting the ball through people’s legs, twisting and turning people inside out, he was absolutely brilliant.
I was blown away. Obviously I was trying to make a bit of an impression and impress, but I couldn’t stop looking at him.

Everytime he got the ball he’d do something creative; do a trick or beat someone. We won 3 or 4 nil, and Wes stole the show.

I remember getting back into the car and the two of us looking at eachother – The Little Lad.

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Cawley and eight other members of that team were playing football cross-channel by the age of 16. Hoolahan was among the few left behind. He spent five years with Belvedere before joining Shelbourne, and his chance in England became one in Scotland - signed by Paul Lambert for Livingstone when Hoolahan was 23.

Cawley assigns Hoolahan's lack of opportunity to his size, but Dave Henderson - Shels' former Head of Recruitment and an erstwhile Aston Villa scout -  puts it down to Hoolahan's first position.

I was working as a scout with Aston Villa. My brother Stephen ran a fás course with Billy Young, and Wes was on it.

He kept recommending Wes, but he was still playing as a winger then, and was still deemed too small.  We brought people over to see him, and while he had tremendous vision, he wasn’t fast enough for them.

But then a year later, someone invented the no.10 position!

That said, Cawley argues that Hoolahan being shunted out wide was a solution to virtually every debate about Hoolahan. "He played on the wing because of his size. He was never an old-fashioned winger, in that he was pacy and beating full-backs. It was all just cleverness, guile, first-touch, linking play. He was miles ahead of everyone else".

But as a winger, Hoolahan was never likely to catch the eye of an English football culture influenced by the rampant, pacy wingers of Alex Ferguson's Manchester United. Perhaps if Hoolahan was coming through today, with English academies more versed to playing 4-3-3 systems in which wingers are asked to cut inside to allow the running be done by full-backs, his pace may not have been such a sticking point.

Nonetheless, Pat Fenlon carved out space between the lines in which to play Hoolahan for Shelbourne centrally, and slowly, heads began to turn as trophies began to tumble - three League of Ireland titles and, most notably, a Champions League run which encompassed an appearance at the Riazor against Deportivo La Coruna.

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Paul Lambert is today associated in Irish football minds with Martin O'Neill's continued employment with Ireland, but no other manager did more for Hoolahan's career in Britain. He signed him for Livingston and was his manager at Norwich as Hoolahan ascended from League One to the Premier League. Suddenly, a country decrying Hoolahan's lack of recognition in England would have to look at itself.

Scandalously, Hoolahan was ignored by Ireland at his peak. Six years after he first sat on an Irish bench, Hoolahan finally got to play, against Colombia under Trapattoni. Not that Trap was bewitched - he excluded him from a Euro 2012 squad featuring Paul Green.

"Even though I knew it [international retirement] was coming, it's still tinged with sadness", laments Cawley. "I look back on it and think of the years he missed out on. He has 43 caps; he should have 143 caps. He missed the guts of six or seven years, and I know that he wasn’t playing at the highest level, but look at his talent. That he wasn’t embraced….it’s a sad indictment of Irish football".

Henderson's summary is plain but plaintive. "It all depends on the way you’re going to play. A lot of the managers didn’t pass through midfield so they didn’t need to get Wesley on the ball. Everyone would have loved to see players like that play more, but if he doesn’t fit in, he doesn’t fit in".

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More often than not, Hoolahan didn't fit.

Whether to select Hoolahan consumed Martin O'Neill's reign as a country with sympathy for Hoolahan's suffering became fed up of manager's unsympathetic to his thought. Lamentably, Hoolahan started just 15 competitive games for Ireland, with O'Neill responsible for 14 of those.

His final appearance for Ireland has proved to be that brutal endgame against Denmark, and it was characterised by a sad irony - having not been trusted by international managers for years, Martin O'Neill took a scythe to his midfield and thrust all responsibility upon Hoolahan.

While it was a hideous ending, Cawley's memory of it blurs with happier times.

All he wants is the ball. All he wanted to be was on the ball. There’d be fellas around him, and he still wanted it.  He kept that youthful exuberance.

When I saw him playing for Ireland, it was the same guy I saw playing for Belvedere; the lad you saw coming on against Denmark looking for the ball is the same lad that came on against Leicester Celtic down in Fairview Park.

The exact same.

Wes Hoolahan leaves us with a few glorious emblems but a wider, deadening realisation that yet again, Irish football has contrived to make itself its own worst enemy.

Hoolahan was the kind of player that the other countries have; the ones that we give the ball to so we can take it off them. Yet we raised one on the streets of Dublin and we left him on the bench. When it was questioned we would point out how he was spurned by the English football hierarchy, the vestigial influence England has had on Irish football holding firm.

This ignored the reality that an Ireland team with Wes Hoolahan in it was better and more likely to score goals than one without him.

Today he retires as an example of ambition willingly pared back, representative of the kind of English-centric, reactive, pessimistic attitude that has come to define Irish football. The employment of Ruud Dokter and the adapting of underage sides to different formations are showing that this may be changing, but it's too late for Wes.

Wes Hoolahan raised a world which we told ourselves we weren't part of and our follies condemned it.

The cradle made a mockery of his genius.

Gavin Cooney
Article written by
Changed the spelling of his name upon pressure from Michael Owen.

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