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Wednesday 23 August 2017

Give Wes his wings

Hoolahan needs to start Austria tie as doubts remain over his selection

Wes Hoolahan celebrates his Euro 2016 goal against Sweden with Glenn Whelan - neither of whom are guaranteed their places in the starting line-up for Sunday’s crunch World Cup qualifier against Austria. Photo: Sportsfile
Wes Hoolahan celebrates his Euro 2016 goal against Sweden with Glenn Whelan - neither of whom are guaranteed their places in the starting line-up for Sunday’s crunch World Cup qualifier against Austria. Photo: Sportsfile

For 180 minutes, as Ireland huffed and puffed and ultimately failed against an ordinary Austrian side, he sat on the bench and kicked his heels.

Wes Hoolahan was surplus to requirements, in Giovanni Trapattoni's mind, when Ireland tried, unsuccessfully and weakly, to get the better of Austria in the qualifiers for the 2014 World Cup, the midfield schemer an unused sub in both games as Ireland drew in Dublin and then lost 1-0 in Vienna, that defeat bringing the Trapattoni era to an end.

An attacking player from Norwich City did start in the game in Vienna, but not Hoolahan: that honour went to Anthony Pilkington (who has not played a minute of competitive international football since then).

As he mulls over his team for Sunday's game against the Austrians, Trap's successor has to work out if can he fit Hoolahan and Harry Arter into the same side and he has a role for Hoolahan?

He should have. Sunday's tie with Austria is winnable, the most winnable home tie Ireland have in this group (excluding Georgia, already beaten, and a poor Moldova side who are cannon fodder).

Harry Arter. Photo: Sportsfile
Harry Arter. Photo: Sportsfile

Austria are nowhere near as good as they were when they visited here in 2013, when they could afford to start with Marco Arnautovic on the bench (he's absent for this game due to suspension, a fact which significantly weakens them).

Marcel Koller's outfit are missing key men in the areas of goalkeeper (retirements and injury), defence (they may have to play Spurs man Kevin Wimmer at full back, a player who is so far off the pace in terms of what's demanded for a Premier League player that it's laughable), midfield (three key midfielders missing) and up front (3 strikers, 0 international goals).

And Hoolahan can be the key to crafting out that win.

This campaign has been, at times, a frustrating one for the former Belvedere man. He watched the first two matches in the group (Serbia away, Georgia at home) on the bench and was only given his first start in the qualifier away to Moldova, where he set up the first goal in a 3-1 win.

He also provided the assist for James McClean's winner in Vienna in November though Hoolahan missed the dull 0-0 draw with Wales due to injury.

It has been pointed out that Ireland had a different, more potent, side to them when Glenn Whelan went off injured midway through the first half in Vienna, replaced by David Meyler, leading to (unfair) suggestions that the team were better off without Whelan, ignoring the role that Whelan does in the side.

Picking the team for Sunday is not an either/or when it comes to Whelan and Hoolahan, men with a combined age of 68. Whelan can play his holding role in a side that also includes Hoolahan.

O'Neill recently admitted that he was puzzled at how Hoolahan's international career only really started when he was into his 30s. "Why did it take so long?" O'Neill asked reporters.

"I've played him more often than anyone else. Wes has lovely ability and here at home, in terms of creating something, he might be able to give you something."

Sunday can prove that.

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