Saturday 25 November 2017

John Giles: Wes Hoolahan is the key to unlocking Irish hopes

The way forward for boss O'Neill is to build team around our only true playmaker

Republic of Ireland's Wes Hoolahan
Republic of Ireland's Wes Hoolahan
Martin O'Neill, Steve Guppy and Roy Keane

THERE is one inescapable fact about Ireland's Euro 2016 draw with Poland which should be a starting point for Martin O'Neill. The team performs best when Wes Hoolahan is the pivot.

That applies no matter where Ireland are playing football. Be it the Aviva Stadium or somewhere in Poland in the autumn, Hoolahan offers the best chance of making it to France for the finals.

This is not a new idea. Back in the day when Hoolahan was showing what he could do for Shelbourne, I was in touch with a Premier League club and urged them to have a good look at him.

The club duly had a look but a negative message came back. Sure, he had loads of skill but he was far too small for the rough and tumble of the modern Premier League.

I must say I was angry. Very angry. I couldn't believe that they could not see value in a player with very obvious skill and a very obvious hunger to make a go of it.

The irony of the situation was lost on the club. They were telling me, a man not gifted with height but who had carved a fairly successful career at club and international level over many, many years that Hoolahan was too small to be a professional footballer at the highest level.

Not so many years later, small men had once again reasserted their ability in a haven for football in Barcelona and Hoolahan, who had stuck to his guns and made it to Norwich, traditionally a club which displayed flair and imagination on a football pitch and eventually into the Premier League.

During Giovanni Trapattoni's time, he was Ireland's best player and wasn't used, just as anyone who looked like he could pass the ball was marginalised and even ridiculed.

Even while the tide was turning across Europe and indeed, across the world after the success of Barcelona and Spain, Trapattoni wouldn't be moved.

It was a low point for me in that whole story and when you look at what Hoolahan did for Ireland in the second-half against Poland, the crass stupidity of it all becomes plain.

Hoolahan was the man to build a team around and he still is. James McCarthy is not the player we hoped he would become and I don't think Glenn Whelan offers anything in the way of creativity.

Stephen Quinn has some elements of Hoolahan's talent in his game and in my best line-up he would replace Whelan.

I would play McCarthy but I would make Hoolahan the main cog in midfield and I would do that home or away.

I'm not sure where the idea crept in that Hoolahan is somehow a luxury player who can only be 'risked' away from home. It was probably Trapattoni.

But I'm sorry to say that Martin O'Neill seems to subscribe to that view. In the eight warm-up games, Hoolahan started in five and came on as a sub in the other three. He didn't start in Tbilisi. O'Neill picked him, to play up front with Robbie Keane against Poland and that is why I have to say that he came upon his best formation almost by accident.

Hoolahan wandered onto the left wing and into the middle during the poor Ireland spell in which Poland scored but essentially, he was picked to play beside Keane.

It was only when O'Neill threw caution to the wind in the search for a goal that Hoolahan moved to where he could do the most damage in midfield.

Poland all but collapsed at his feet and it was Hoolahan's probing and passing which helped build the pressure which eventually forced Shane Long's equaliser.

I accept that James McClean's spectacular entrance into the game was a big moment but Hoolahan already had the game bubbling at that point and he simple provided the extra pressure which burst the dam.

As things stood, Ireland deserved the equaliser and I'm not sure the same could be said of the last gasp winner against Georgia or the draw in Germany.


Fighting spirit and determination are qualities which come hard-wired in most Irish footballers and O'Neill has certainly tapped into that.

Scoring late goals is a great habit to have but as he said himself, it would be better to score them before the opposition and stay in that position if at all possible.

Poland got their goal because he took an almighty gamble with Robbie Brady at left-full and it didn't work. I don't think this should be pursued. He should be able to fill the position with Marc Wilson, Ciaran Clark or Cyrus Christie. Brady can do better work further up the pitch.

I would stick with Shane Long (right) for Scotland in June if he's fit. Robbie Keane hit the post twice but he didn't make any other contribution to the game and I think O'Neill needs more.

Ireland must beat Scotland, that reality cannot be avoided and I truly believe that Wes Hoolahan holds the key.

I just hope that O'Neill sees this. He had the right people on the pitch and circumstances unfolded to show him just how valuable Hoolahan really is when played in his best position.

Against Poland for about 30 minutes, Ireland were about as bad as they have been under O'Neill.. For the following hour they were about as good as they have been under the same manager.

One man in his proper position was the difference.

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