Criticism when he’s out of the team and no praise when he’s in it. Martin O’Neill is getting hammered for a perceived lack of trust in playmaker Wes Hoolahan.
But, the stats don’t back it up. Can we really summarise the Irish manager’s philosophy in the treatment of one player?
Proof that Ireland are more than brute-strength and aggression, diminutive Hoolahan is definitely the creative beat at the heart of the Irish midfield. Ignored by previous manager Giovanni Trapattoni and despite the current furore in the press, Hoolahan is an integral part of O’Neill’s plans, even if he doesn’t start every game.
Though fresh-faced, the 34-year-old’s journey to the top has been a long one. A star with Shelbourne in the League of Ireland, the Dubliner has had spells in both Scotland and the English lower leagues before making it to the Premier League. However, he’s now back in the Championship following Norwich’s relegation from the top flight, where he has made ten appearances this season.
But it’s Hoolahan’s importance at international level where his worth is really felt, as Ireland are labouring to impress at the start of World Cup qualifying. An apparent lack of trust on O’Neill’s part has pundits up in arms but the arguments don’t really stack up.
It seems peculiar that the manager gets criticised for not playing Hoolahan but receives no praise when he does. Hoolahan was named Man of the Match after Sunday’s game against Moldova but it seems this has little to do with the 64-year-old actually playing him in the team.
Ireland did not play well at home to Georgia and it was a surprise that Hoolahan was not introduced. But not for the reasons Eamon Dunphy or Damien Duff say, that O’Neill doesn’t trust or compliment the player. In fact, it was a surprise because O’Neill usually does bring Hoolahan into the action, if he is not already starting the game.
Hoolahan didn’t play away to Georgia way back in the opening game of Euro 2016 qualifying and that seems to have clouded many people’s judgement of Martin O’Neill. Not least the RTÉ panel, and Dunphy in particular. This was most certainly a hangover from the Trapattoni era. Shunned by the Italian, Hoolahan’s absence for the first qualifier under Trap’s successor allowed Dunphy to continue to beat that drum, something he did throughout the Euro 2016 campaign. Except it wasn’t backed up by the statistics.