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Hoolahan Was Severely Underused By Ireland, But His Star Shone Brightly On The Biggest Stage

During the closing sequence of the film Casablanca, in a scene that would bring a tear to the most belligerent of stones, Humphrey Bogart rejects the love of his life, Ingrid Bergman, for the greater good of the allied war effort.

Before their final goodbye on a Moroccan airstrip, he reminds her, in that weary, resigned manner of his, ‘we’ll always have Paris.’

Last Thursday Wes Hoolahan announced his retirement from international football, and Irish football fans woke up feeling a little like Bogart’s character, Rick Blaine. Resigned, weary, left with nothing but memories to cherish and wonderings of what might have been.

Hoolahan will forever be a microcosm of the current era of Irish football. 41 caps and 15 competitive starts from one of the most talented Irish footballers of his generation, who remained relatively untroubled by injury throughout his international career.

A case in point of the chasm that has existed between the Irish public’s view of their team’s potential, and the opinion taken by those tasked with picking the team.

Since the announcement on Thursday, some have looked beyond the recent administrations, and wondered why Brian Kerr or Steve Staunton did not award Hoolahan a cap prior to his 2008 debut under Giovanni Trapattoni, at the age of 25.

Hoolahan was a late bloomer, playing his football at Shelbourne until he was 22, before joining Livingston in the Scottish Premier League in 2006.

Kerr didn’t pick Hoolahan when he was at Shelbourne nor at Livingston. In Kerr’s defence, there were few calling for Hoolahan’s inclusion in the international team when he was playing his football at Tolka Park.

Kerr’s final months in the job coincided with Hoolahan’s one season at Livingston, in which he made only 16 appearances in a campaign which saw the Scottish side rooted to the foot of the SPL, finishing the season 15 points adrift of their nearest rivals. It’s not hard to imagine why Hoolahan may not have been on Kerr’s radar.

During Staunton’s reign, Hoolahan was playing in League 1 and the Championship for Blackpool. In hindsight, it’s surprising that he wasn’t capped under the Dundalk man given that Staunton, despite his shortcomings in the role, was eager to hand out opportunities to new players.

Instead it was left to Trapattoni to give Hoolahan his first start for Ireland, in 2008, and his second, four years later in 2012, which goes some way to summarising how the Italian felt about the Norwich midfielder’s talents.

Since Thursday, the relatively few international caps Hoolahan finished up with have been a point of criticism leveled at Irish football culture in general.

The thinking being, if Hoolahan finishes his career with half the number of caps as Glenn Whelan, doesn’t that tell you all you need to know regarding the attitudes to the game in this country?

The truth is, however, the timing of Hoolahan’s career was unlucky to a large degree. His prime footballing years coincided with Trapattoni, and the Italian manager’s steadfast belief that Irish players could not be trusted with possession of a football.

Under Martin O’Neill, Hoolahan registered 39 of his 41 Irish caps. Yet, O’Neill still failed to fully utilise Hoolahan’s talents on a regular basis. When questioned about this he would often refer to Hoolahan’s advancing years or inherent lack of energy.

There may be a grain of truth in that. Each of his appearances in the green jersey under the Derry man came after his 30th birthday.

There is a lot more truth, however, in the fact O’Neill has at times been just as negative in his role as Ireland manager as his predecessor. And during such times, he felt Hoolahan was a luxury he could not afford.

So far from being a career that exemplifies all that is wrong with Irish football, Hoolahan’s is one unlucky to have experienced its prime under two relatively conservative managers.

He was Ireland’s best footballer for the majority of his international career and, according to the refreshingly simple wisdom of John Giles, your best players should play.

Anyone who has watched Ireland play with and without Hoolahan could identify swiftly enough that they were two very different propositions.

Despite a somewhat unfulfilled Republic of Ireland career, however, Hoolahan had his time under the international spotlight in the summer of 2016.

During the must-win game against Italy in Lille, he provided this generation of Irish football fans with their David O’Leary-penalty-against-Romania moment by delivering the most elegantly paced cross of a football one is likely to see.

The fact that this came mere minutes after he had fluffed a one-on-one with Italian goalkeeper Salvatore Sirigu, in a moment that his international career may well have been devastatingly remembered for, is a testament to his immense footballing ability and strength of character.

Instead of dipping his head in disappointment, he responded with the patience and grace that were his calling card in the Irish team, and supplied the most famous assist in our recent footballing history.

And what about nine days earlier, during a tense, edgy opening game against Sweden, taking place in a hot and muggy Stade de France. The former Shelbourne man was the one to provide the quality to break the deadlock on the biggest stage, sending Irish fans in the stadium, and at home, into a state of euphoria.

His stunted international career might forever leave us with wonderings of what might have been.

But his talent shined brightest on the biggest stage that afternoon in the Stade de France.

Alas, we’ll always have Paris.  

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Author: The PA Team

This article was written by a member of The PA Team.