herald

Thursday 8 December 2016

Still on the road to Russia

Wes not guaranteed a start but retirement is not an option now

Wes Hoolahan (right), Jonathan Walters (centre) and Paul McShane at Ireland squad training in Abbotstown
Wes Hoolahan (right), Jonathan Walters (centre) and Paul McShane at Ireland squad training in Abbotstown

In the unlikely event of a break in play in tomorrow's World Cup tie in Vienna, players from both sides could swap war stories about their summer in France.

But while Euro 2016 was a scarring experience for an Austrian side who managed to score just one goal over three games and came home with their tails very much between their legs, France was an invigorating event for the Irish players.

And that's the main reason why Wes Hoolahan, who will be 35 the next time he celebrates his birthday, is in Vienna this weekend and not back home in leafy Norfolk resting up.

Christian Fuchs, who is four years younger than Hoolahan, retired from international football after the Euros but the man from Portland Row has a hunger now, his appetite unfed at Ireland level for so long, and he's keen for more.

"With the experience I had in the Euros, which was brilliant, I wanted to stick around," Hoolahan told The Herald.

"I only came into international football late, I will be a long time retired so as long as I feel fit, as long as I feel I can play a part and as long as the manager wants me, if he feels I can contribute something to the team, whether that's in the side or off the bench, trying to make things happen for other players, I will stick around.

"France was a great experience, from the first day we landed in Versailles to the last game in Lyon, it was the pinnacle of my career to play in the Euros and hopefully I'll get a chance to play in the World Cup. As a kid I dreamed of that, playing for my country in a World Cup finals and I have a chance of doing that."

Replaced

The World Cup campaign has gone well for Ireland, less so for Hoolahan who was an unused sub in the first two games while in his only start in the group, away to Moldova, he was replaced before the hour mark.

He is in with a chance of starting tomorrow but Harry Arter is also pressing hard for a place in the starting XI for his competitive debut, with Eunan O'Kane also in the manager's thoughts.

Frustrating for the many fans of Hoolahan but for the player himself, it's a matter of abiding by the game plan and the overall shape of the team.

"Yeah, Moldova was my first start but we have a good squad of players," he says.

"I am still waiting to get my chance, whoever has played has done well so sometimes you just have to wait. I can't say it's frustrating as all you want is for the team to do well, I have to make sure I am ready when the gaffer calls on me."

Ah, that old chestnut, when the manager calls on Wes Hoolahan. It's one of the most hotly-debated topics with this national team, whether Hoolahan should play every minute of every game, whether he's more suited to home games and is a luxury in an away battle.

"Tomorrow will be a different type of game, it's hard to know which is the kind of game that will suit me," he concedes.

"If you are at home and you need to score, create chances, I'd have a better chance of playing. Sometimes away from home it's harder to break teams down, they have a lot of the ball, they have players who can keep the ball. It's the manager's call."

Tomorrow will have a big say in how this group finishes, Austria possibly out of contention already if they lose, but of course the home side back in the race if they win.

No matter the outcome, Hoolahan sees a hard road ahead.

"We had to do it the hard way on the road to the Euros and we will have to work hard again to get to Russia, Vienna will be a hard night for us as they have a good home record but we have to be ready for it," he says.

"Of course we'd like the win but I think I'd take a point on Saturday at this stage. We have taken points in Serbia and Moldova and beaten Georgia in Dublin, once you do your job at home that's the most important thing, if your home form is good you have a great platform to go away and do well.

Vital

"With the gap we have now between Saturday and the next game in March, it's vital that we get something out of it in Vienna and it'd be good to come away from there with some sort of result.

"We are ahead of Austria in the table at the moment and we have to keep it that way. I know Serbia play Wales on Saturday so one of them will be dropping points this weekend so this is a great opportunity for us to get a point or all three."

With Robbie Brady likely to be moved to defence in place of the injured Stephen Ward and the absence of James McCarthy, it will be a different midfield in Vienna, possibly opening the door even more for Hoolahan to play.

"We will probably have a new-look midfield on Saturday, with James out and Robbie maybe moving to left back. We have done that a few times now, moved it around, that's why we train with each other, to be able to adapt," says Hoolahan.

"Robbie didn't play in midfield against Germany, Jeff didn't play in Moldova as he was suspended, you will always get injuries and suspensions but the fact that we have changed the midfield and still won games is good for us."

There was little detailed talk about Ireland among the Austrian camp at their press conference, no players of Roy Keane's level in the green corner to frighten them, but the Irish players are also a bit out of touch.

"I know the Austrian squad doesn't have too many big names but they have Alaba, who is a class player, we know that as he scored against us the last time we played them, I think he scored in both games," says Hoolahan.

"Look, we will know enough by kick-off. I'd prefer to focus on ourselves, we haven't been beaten in the group yet, with the home win over Georgia, a good draw in Serbia and a great win in Moldova we have started well, hopefully we can keep the run going."

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