With Ireland set to face Austria in a pivotal clash in Vienna on November 12, the public are guaranteed to hear either Eamon Dunphy lament to exclusion of Wes Hoolahan from the starting line-up or quiver with excitement in the wake of his favourite Irish player starting in a crunch game.
Hoolahan is by far Ireland’s most creative player and has been for quite some time now but his career has been marred by frustration, never truly being able to stamp down his authority in starting line ups for both club and country.
Despite lighting up the League of Ireland for Shelbourne season after season, Hoolahan never really got his chance across in Britain. He made a move to Livingston when he was 23 and only got his first sniff of Premier League football until five years ago at the ripe age of 29.
Yet, even now Hoolahan is still playing some of the best football of his career for Norwich but in all realism, Dunphy’s go-to scapegoat is plying his trade week in week out in the second division of English football.
With no disrespect intended towards the Championship, there are some fantastic players in the league including Ireland’s own Robbie Brady and the league’s top scorer Dwight Gayle, both definitely Premier League worthy but if there was a world beater in the league they would surely be snapped up by a bigger club.
And that is how Dunphy likes to market Hoolahan; a world beater. He even went as far to call the 34-year-old his “love child” live on air after the remarkable 1-0 victory over the Germans a year ago.
Before the 2-1 loss away to Poland in the last game of the Euro 2016 qualifiers Dunphy openly showed his frustration that Martin O’Neill did not want to start Hoolahan against big teams especially away from home in a memorable rant and a year later the RTÉ pundit is still adamant in his beliefs that the Norwich midfielder should be starting every game for the country.
Speaking after the 3-1 win against Moldova in which Hoolahan was awarded man of the match Dunphy said,
“We have a player that would probably get into the England team. I saw England play and I saw France play Bulgaria and there are very few players, if any, better than Wes Hoolahan.”
It is clear the veteran pundit thinks very highly of Wes Hoolahan and anyone who has watched the midfielder play for Ireland since the summer will have nothing but respect for him especially after a goal against Sweden and setting up Robbie Brady against Italy during Euro 2016.
Yet, to say he would start for England or France makes Dunphy look like a fish out of the water. Hoolahan isn’t deemed good enough to play in the Premier League by 20 different managers so to say he is good enough to start for two top nations in an extreme statement.
Ultimately Hoolahan is what Irish fans want in their team but possibly don’t need. The idea of a flamboyant playmaker in the number 10 role for Ireland is an exciting prospect but realistically Hoolahan is not surrounded by the world class that he can pass the ball around with. Ireland are simply not good enough to ‘out football’ teams with a high standard of footballing ability.
Yes, under Martin O’Neill and Roy Keane the country have become more competitive and unlike under Trapattoni the team is now in a position to start creative and attacking players like Hoolahan away to Macedonia and Georgia but are the countries national side in the position to play an out and out central attacking midfielder away to teams ranked as higher than them?
Reflecting on the Serbia game there are two sides of the coin. Yes, Ireland could not retain the ball after taking a 1-0 lead early on but on the other side of that would they have been able to take the game to the Serbians without leaking in more than the two goals they conceded?
Serbia away was always going to be one of the toughest games in the qualifying campaign and realistically Ireland were always going to be under the cosh when travelling to eastern Europe having to revert to a defensive playing style that fans were used to seeing under Trapattoni rather than O’Neill but the simple fact of the matter is that Ireland will struggle to play the attacking style of football fans want them to play when away from home.
And this is why Wes Hoolahan may be one of the unluckiest players in Irish history, with an abundance of talent he does not fit into the team in the big matches. As much as Dunphy and most Irish fans would like to think that this squad can bring a game to big teams realistically they cannot and that is the nature of football. With the exception of the Italy game in Euro 2016 Ireland never played attacking football against any of the big teams they pulled shock results against.
When Ireland beat Germany at home last year Hoolahan played the full match but they were no more competent in holding onto the ball than if he was not playing and was largely ineffective in that game, but in the end the match boiled down to the world champions wasting 17 shots and holding 72% possession but was ultimately decided by a lucky route one ball and an exquisite finish from Shane Long.
A great result no doubt, but it did not fit into Dunphy’s ideal vision of this Irish team where Hoolahan dictated the game against one of the best teams in the world and that is why Hoolahan may be a case of the grass always being greener on the other side. If he is not on the pitch and Ireland are lacking creativity or simply under a serious amount of pressure the number one scapegoat is Martin O’Neill and his decision to not select Hoolahan but in reality the 34-year-old is not the answer to competing against the big teams.