Saturday 22 September 2018

Wembley way to Scotland


AS someone who has just turned 33 in recent days, Wes Hoolahan has heard all the jokes about what happens when you reach that milestone.

"I'm over the hill now, 34 at my next birthday," he laughs.

But the Norwich City and Ireland man, who spent far too long in the cold-storage section of international football and should have way more than a measly 18 caps on his CV, has so much to play for over the next 20 days.

By this evening he could be a Premier League player again, as his Norwich side face up to Middlesbrough in the Championship play-off final (3pm). By dinner time on Saturday June 13th, Ireland will either be firmly back in the hunt for Euro 2016 qualification, or else out of the race, depending on the outcome of that key clash with Scotland in Dublin.

The pressure's on, but Hoolahan is not fazed by that - stepping up to (successfully) take a penalty in the second leg of that playoff semi-final against Ipswich when the tie was nervously tied at 1-1 on aggregate was about the most intense pressure he's faced until now.

And for Hoolahan, it's all leading up to that key clash with Scotland, his first home in professional football in the UK from his spell with Livingston a decade ago.

"This is a big month for me now, three big games ahead with the playoff at Wembley, England at home and then the qualifier with Scotland," Hoolahan told The Herald as Norwich fine-tuned their preparations for today's trip to Wembley.

"It's a massive few weeks for me, to get back into the Premier League is the priority now but Scotland is on my mind as well as I know how important that us.

"If we can get a positive result against England, it'd be a massive boost heading into the Scotland game.

"I'd like to play against England, keep up the momentum, but I will see how the legs are next week, once the playoff is out of the way.

"I've never played against England at any level so I am looking forward to it.

"We certainly don't want to go into the Scotland game with confidence low after a loss to England, a good display and a win against the English would be great for us going into the Scotland match," added Hoolahan.

"I know from past experience that if we can win this playoff, it would be a huge confidence boost for me heading into the internationals, winning a playoff final at Wembley is the kind of thing that puts a real spring in your step.

"But I know the other side from chatting to other lads in the squad and how it can get to you, this time last year the Derby lads, Jeff [Hendrick] and Richard [Keogh], lost the playoff final at Wembley and came in for international duty, they were down about it initially but they got over it and that's what you do, just focus on the next game."

Martin O'Neill has a tendency to use Hoolahan for home games more so that away matches and his club boss Alex Neil adopted a similar approach for the playoff semi-final against Ipswich, where he was on the bench for the away leg but started and played a key role in the key home leg. "The manager said the first leg was going to be frantic and hectic and he would get me on for the second half, which is how it panned out. We got the away draw, I started in the home game and we won it, won it well, I was able to get on the ball more," he says.

But Scotland at home will also be a battle, club ties strong as the Sccots have Hoolahan's Norwich team-mates Russell Martin and Steven Whittaker in their panel.

"We've had a bit of banter about the game already. They know it's going to be a tough game, it's important for them but it's massive for us," Hoolahan admits. "We have to beat Scotland, they got one over on us by beating us at their place so we all know that to have any chance of qualifying, we need to beat Scotland in Dublin. The scoreline isn't that important to me, once we get the three points."

Before all that, there's the matter of Wembley and the playoff, old ground for Hoolahan, who helped Blackpool beat Yeovil at the London venue in the League One playoff final in 2007.

"It's a huge game, so many people around the world will be watching this game today. But the minute you walk out on that pitch you just forget about all that and just play the game, play your normal game and not allow the occasion get to you," he says.

"You do hear the figures, that the game is worth £130million to the club, a lot of money, it's one of the biggest games around in terms of what it means.

"It's all about the Premier Legaue and I want to be back there. Old Trafford, Anfield, White Hart Lane, they are the great stadiums, the ones you want to play in. They are the memories you want to have when you're finished playing so to get back there would be great."

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