The international retirement of Wes Hoolahan on Thursday morning was not a surprise, but no less sorrowful as a result.
In the all-too-brief glimpses of his talent that Irish fans got to see over the course of his 43 caps, the Norwich City playmaker showed the sort of technical ability that suggested that his place in the Ireland setup deserved to be far more than the Plan B that it was thought as for the most part.
Just 15 of those 43 caps were competitive international starts – clearly, Hoolahan was wasted at international level under a number of managers who were more interested in maintaining their conservative approaches than dare to risk pushing the envelope. He should have been the focal point of our national team for years, and we threw that away. Hoolahan’s treatment set Irish football back years.
The general consensus is that O’Neill didn’t try to talk Hoolahan out of walking away from the national setup, and that’s par for the course. Aside from his age (Hoolahan himself rightly pointed out at he will be 38 by Euro 2020), it removes one of the manager’s biggest headaches. Not the player himself, you understand, but the near-deafening clamour from certain quarters to see him start every game. The fatalism from the likes of Eamon Dunphy who were ready to concede defeat – and spoke as the result was already known – as soon as the teamsheet was released and the midfielder’s name was not on it. The removal of that is one less awkward question for O’Neill to have to answer from now on.
Dunphy’s level of indignation turned all of it into a pantomime of course, and his Messi comparison on Thursday didn’t help matters, but his sense of frustration was at least relatable from Irish fans desperate to see the team make some sort of progress from the dark ages.
In many ways, Hoolahan’s treatment was similar to that of Matt Le TIssier by England in the 90s. The Southampton man was majestic on the ball, the sort of player that teams should have been built around, and yet England’s fear of the creative at that time, their devotion to strong and functional rather than innovative, meant that the former Southampton man made just eight appearances for his country despite being widely-regarded as one of the best English players of that decade.
Irish international football at the highest level, in the current setup, is in the place now that English football was twenty years ago (some would argue that it is still trapped there). It fears creativity. It fears intelligence. It craves brawn rather than brain. It knows only way one way to play, and gets by under the promise that the Boys in Green might qualify for a major tournament if the ball falls our way at the right time (or if Scotland mess up somewhere and hand it to us). There is no plan, there is no strategy, there is no learning or development.
Players like Hoolahan should be given the freedom to transform the game, to be put at the forefront of every campaign going to show kids that Ireland players are actually capable of being creative when given the chance – not banished to the bench because they don’t fall in with overt conservatism.
The lament for Hoolahan’s relatively unfulfilled international career isn’t necessarily about the player himself, rather how the most recent Ireland managers have treated technically gifted players. At the age of 35, unfortunately, his time has come and gone – but where does it leave his would-be successors?
To drudge up the tired line that “we don’t have the players” once again, that argument was a sham when it was being peddled after the Denmark game and it’s a sham now. It’s a argument from those that see the names Burnley and Bournemouth next to the players’ names and make the lazy assumption that because they are not playing for the likes Liverpool and Manchester United then they cannot possibly be of much use.
We have the players, what we don’t have is the right culture at senior international level to allow them to develop into the players they could be.
The mistakes of the past when it comes to Hoolahan are a travesty and should serve as one of the greatest regrets from, certainly Trapattoni’s if not O’Neill’s, time in charge of Ireland, but all they are good for now is for their use as a cautionary tale for the present and future. Upon signing the his new contract, the manager has promised a bright new era for Irish football featuring young creative talent – and the onus is on him now to deliver.
There is a fear, of course, that the current management team are making more of an effort to find the next Glenn Whelan or Daryl Murphy than they are the next Hoolahan, that more of the same will be in order for the 2020 campaign, just with younger models. That can’t be allowed to happen – there is scope for change now, and that chance has to be seized upon.
Hoolahan retiring is a sad event for Irish football, but it will be even sadder if the team’s only hope for creativity is allowed to vanish with him.
In the latest episode of the Mixer Irish football podcast, we look ahead to this weekend’s curtain-raising President’s Cup between Cork City and Dundalk and discuss the latest League of Ireland news and transfers.