Wes Hoolahan announced his decision to retire from international football on Thursday.
In truth, at the age of 35 and with no competitive football for the Irish team for over a year his decision hasn’t come as much of a surprise.
Affectionately referred to simply as ‘Wes’ by the majority fans and pundits alike, Hoolahan has arguably been the most divisive figure in the Irish game since Roy Keane.
It seemed that the build-up to almost every game was dominated by the conversation about whether or not the diminutive midfielder should be in the starting eleven.
It’s fair to say that the majority of the fans wanted Hoolahan on the pitch.
Certainly, the RTÉ panel championed his cause for years, even as far back as the dark days of Giovanni Trapattoni who consistently overlooked Hoolahan during arguably his best run of Premier League form.
Instead, the Italian plumped for the likes of Paul Green, an honest but limited professional, his inclusion ahead of Hoolahan only served to further exasperate the Boys in Green.
In an era where Ireland’s midfield was primarily built around Glenn Whelan and supplemented with a rotating cast of Keith Andrews, Darron Gibson, James McCarthy, David Meyler – all of whom have served us well throughout the years – Hoolahan offered variety at the very least.
Technically superior to all of the aforementioned players, he could take the ball in tight situations and recycle it reliably. He could dribble past players and had the ability to play that killer pass.
In recent years his detractors would point to his age and physical stature as a reason for him not to be selected.
Even Martin O’Neill famously suggested he could only be effective in home games and questioned his ability to play for a full 90 minutes.
But the reality is when he was on the pitch there was a marked difference in the way Ireland played.
Hoolahan earned a mere 43 caps for his country. It’s a wonder he managed to give us so many memorable moments in such a limited amount of time on the pitch.
There was the goal against Sweden in the Euros, the redemptive assist for Robbie Brady’s goal against Italy in the same tournament having just scuffed a guilt-edged chance himself and then the magnificent pass to play in James McClean to score the winner against Austria in Vienna.
Despite these euphoric moments, the news of Hoolahan’s retirement today will be surrounded by what ifs.
Not, what if he stayed on?
But, what if he had been brought into the fold earlier in his career? What if we had a manager with the courage to build a team around a 5’6” ball player?
Would those dark days of the Staunton or Trapattoni eras have been quite so dark? How many goals would Robbie Keane have scored had he had been feeding off balls from Wes in his prime?
With the paucity of technically high-level, creative footballers available for the Ireland squad, should Hoolahan’s career in the green shirt serve as a warning?
We have no comparable players coming through at the highest level, with so many South Americans and Europeans plying their trade in the Premier League, it’s difficult for an Irish lad to get a look in.
Are we more likely to find the next Wes further down the divisions, or even in our own league? Could the likes of Jack Byrne or Patrick McEleny be taken in and nurtured now?
If Ireland are to compete over the next few years they need an incisive, creative edge. Hoolahan’s abilities were ignored too long, that can’t afford to make the same mistake again.
Stephen Vaughan, Pundit Arena