Hoolahan: This is a cup final for us
Wes Hoolahan digs deep into the memory bank of past moments as he contemplates tomorrow’s Euro 2016 game against Italy here in Lille, one of the biggest games of his career and, possibly, the last of his international career.
Asked to make a judgement on the (poor) state of the pitch at the Stade Pierre Mauroy, Hoolahan just shrugs his shoulders and says that he’s played on the boggy pitches of League One in England so he’s ready for anything. On the importance of the game against Italy, he recalls a key match for Norwich against Middlesbrough, the Championship play-off final in 2015, where the Canaries were singing after a 2-0 win.
But Hoolahan, 34, is under no illusions that this game tomorrow will be a step-up from anything he’s been used to. He’s waited a long, long time to be able to tread on this stage and he’s not keen to go home yet.
“It’s like a cup final for us. We have to win no matter what and to do everything possible to do us. It is similar to last year against Middlesborough: you need to win,” he says.
“Hopefully we can get a lot of the ball on Wednesday and get the chances to score the goal we do need to get through the group. It’s everyone’s dream to do something special at the Euros or whenever you are playing for your country, to make some sort of a impact or score a goal or create something and be on a winning team.”
It was the feeling of being on the losing side last weekend which hurt, and still hurts, Hoolahan and his Ireland team-mates.
The manner of the 3-0 loss to Belgium is still being raked over, and will be for a long time unless the side can outwit the Italians in Lille, but for Hoolahan, it’s essential for Martin O’Neill’s players to try and forget about what happened in Bordeaux.
Was it a case of Ireland just taking their beating on Saturday from a better side? “Yeah, they are very good; one of the best teams in the world and we just need to get over it because we have a massive game against the Italians,” says Hoolahan.
“I think with the result you try and forget about it as quickly as possible and move on to the next one. There wasn’t much said about it yesterday because we just have to concentrate on the Italians now.
“The Belgians are a high-quality team, have a lot of quality players in their team so it was more difficult. We need to play better against the Italians, keep the ball better, create more chances, and hopefully we can do that.
“The Italians have been impressive in the last two games and we know what to expect, it will be a tough game but we are hoping we can get the three points.”
As it happens, Hoolahan is one of only two members of the Ireland squad who has played in Lille before. John O’Shea lined out here twice, for Manchester United in Champions League game back in 2005, where Milenko Acimovic scored the only goal for the French side against a very strong United outfit, and again in 2007, which United won.
Hoolahan came here with Shelbourne for a UEFA Cup game in 2004, the high point for the Reds in that tie a 2-2 draw in the home leg as Lille (who had a young Kevin Mirallas in the side) won 2-0 on the night.
That defeat ended Shels’ interest in Europe but Hoolahan hopes that his current European experience can go on even longer.
Roy Keane spoke yesterday at length about the need for players to find strength in adversity and to bounce back from defeats, pointing out that “football is more about setbacks and disappointments than the good days”.
Yet Hoolahan feels that the side has already shown in the qualifying campaign how to recover.
“We got beaten in Poland and then we went and beat Bosnia twice to qualify for here. We have had a few setbacks and the next few games we have gone and won, or got the result we needed,” he says.
“So we have a good bunch of lads here who are positive. And we are looking forward to the Italian game.”
In the first game of Group E, against Sweden, the priority for Ireland was to avoid defeat but tomorrow night, only a win will do. That heaps the burden onto the shoulders of potential match-winners like Hoolahan to, well, win the match.
“I don’t mind that, my job in the team is to create chances for the other lads and help my team-mates out, hopefully I can do that I just go into every game doing what I can, helping the other lads and getting what I can out of it,” he said.
“I just try to influence the game as much as I can,” he says of that personal pressure.
“Tomorrow it all depends on what we do, it’s important for us to be on the front foot, keep the ball better and create chances.
“You have to look for the ball and get on it, help your team-mates out and try to create a few chances.
There was a bit of an escape for the squad from the bubble that is Ireland at Euro 2016 a couple of days ago when the squad had an afternoon off in Paris, doing the touristy things: a coffee, a stroll on the Champs Elysee, a look at the Eiffel Tower.
For Hoolahan and his team-mates, Ireland can only hope that they get to see some more of France in the knock-out stages next weekend.