EURO 2016

Last of the street footballers finally gets crack at the big time

Wes Hoolahan
Wes Hoolahan

He’s the last of the street footballers and finally Wes Hoolahan is getting a crack at the international big time.

Hoolahan will be Ireland’s playmaker at Euro 2016, with current Irish boss Martin O’Neill having embraced his football gifts where Giovanni Trapattoni feared or scorned them. 

Indeed, Trap left us without ever explaining which.

At 34, Hoolahan represents the last of the pre-Academy generation, players who even Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger admits did not have the sheer joy of the game coached out of them as kids.

Hoolahan comes from the north inner city of Dublin. He’s a huge success story for an area that has had a bad rap of late.

For him football was played in the school yard with a tennis ball, on the streets with a bigger ball, with jumpers for goalposts and with ‘fly keepers’­— because no one wanted to stand in goal all day.

It’s a background in the game that is now lost as professional clubs take kids out of school and begin coaching them through statistics.

It’s because of that background that Hoolahan does play the game with a bit of joy in his feet.

But the last few years of great success with club and country began with a decision by then Norwich manager Paul Lambert to convert ‘Wezzo’ from a left winger to a ‘No 10’.

“Being in the middle enabled me to get on the ball more, that was his reasoning,” remembers Hoolahan.

“As a winger, you can be isolated out there. Paul found a position that suited me and got the best out of me.”

Now he heads to France tasked with the role of prising open the Swedish, Belgian and Italian defences.

“I’m really looking forward to Euro 2016, we’re flying out on Wednesday and it is getting close now.

“We had a good training week in Cork, the weather was fantastic and we’re raring to go.”

Where were you four years ago this week, when Trap just didn’t want you around?

“I was in Spain, in a villa, watching with my family and cheering the lads on. I was hoping we’d do well but unfortunately we didn’t.”

Despite the diplomatic words, those must have been hard times for Wes, to see players of lesser talent in a green shirt at a Finals, while he cheered them on from afar?

“It was difficult at the time when you watched the games. 

“Bar that I didn’t think much of it, I was playing league football week in week out, playing well, and in the Premier League it was great, and you kind of switched off a bit.

“But when the actual games came up you wished you were there.”

There were those who maintained Hoolahan would have had a better chance of getting into the Spanish squad four years ago, as they played with all those silken midfielders and no centre-forward. 

“Yeah, of course, it’s nice to be complimented with Spain, the world and European champions.

“They played 4-6-0 at times,” he says, “which was quite amazing, and to go and win it was some achievement.”

For now all that Ireland wants is the best of Wes for the three group matches. So can you play three games in 10 days?

“Yes, of course. If the gaffer wants me to pay three games in 10 days barring niggles or injury, I’ll be fine.”

Is there an argument for saying that, even at the age of 34, this late bloomer, this last of the old school, is actually at his peak?

“Yeah, I’ve had a good season this year and the last couple of seasons as well. I feel fit and ready, as fit as I did four or five years ago.

“I just think about next game all the time, the next game now will be Sweden. I’m going to think about that game and hopefully get the result we need.”

Are there regrets though? You’ve come up hard way but this might be your one and only Finals?

“No, no regrets, I’m honoured to play for my country, I’ve played 26 times, to play that many times is a great honour and I don’t look on the past.

“I look on the present and I’m enjoying what I’m doing now at the moment and hopefully, you know, a few more.

Hoolahan looked a picture of fitness as he spoke to us, honed and toned with the Irish tee-shirt hanging easily off his shoulders. It wasn’t always so. 

There were actually those who said Hoolahan was, well, a bit tubby!

“Look, that’s to do with the times too. Back then you didn’t realise what a diet was.

“After a game it was a burger and chips and a few pints. 

“Now it’s all changed. You’ve got to look after yourself if you want to prolong your career.

“Be healthy, stay off the drink as much as you can so you can concentrate on your football.

“I just thought that was the norm in the Airtricity League and even when I went to England. Diet and nutrition wasn’t there then. It is now.”