(Credit: Ian Anderson)
Seventy minutes into the Premier League lower table clash between Aston Villa and Norwich City, on a bitterly cold day at Villa Park, the home supporters were frustrated. Down to ten men, unable to hold onto possession, and with their narrow 1-0 lead looking increasingly precarious, one supporter couldn't take it any longer: “Come on boys, they’re not bloody Barcelona”.
Indeed, with his triangular passing, deft touches, and intelligent movement, Norwich midfielder Wesley Hoolahan was, today, not far off deserving of such comparison. Jamie Redknapp’s post match commentary was apt: “The little man, Hoolahan, was the best player on the pitch”.
It is surely not the first time in recent years that the Dubliner has been the best player on the pitch, but has missed out on the formal accolade (Villa keeper Guzan claiming yesterday’s official award). Hoolahan has risen quietly though the footballing ranks. Where he once dazzled Shelbourne fans (and opposition defenders alike) with his dribbling skills on the wing at Tolka Park, the thirty-year-old now captivates Norwich fans to an equal extent, albeit in a slightly more mature role just behind striker Grant Holt, operating as an attacking playmaker in Chris Hughton’s diamond midfield.
‘Slow but Steady wins the Race’. In other words, consistent and effectual effort will achieve success. Wes Hoolahan has adhered to these words in the past, seeing his career at club level slowly but surely evolve. Since his move from Blackpool to Norwich in 2008, he has established himself as a sharp and intelligent ball-player with an excellent positional sense. Having managed to retain the crowd-pleasing turns and tricks from his days at Shels- Hoolahan has admitted in the past that he has always enjoyed playing ‘the entertainer’- he has firmly established himself as a fans' favourite at Carrow Road.
The Dubliner’s impact at Norwich did not propel until his second season – his first was slightly dented by a combination of injury and a strained relationship with manager at the time Glenn Roeder. Paul Lambert’s arrival in August 2009 saw Hoolahan being utilized as an attacking midfielder, gifted freedom to manoeuvre within the space just behind the two strikers. Hoolahan followed Lambert’s orders with clear relish – his attacking combination with Holt and Chris Martin saw the trio notching up 67 goals between them in the 2009-2010 season as City were promoted back to the Championship.
From here Hoolahan has settled into his new midfield role adeptly, displaying consistently solid performances and netting important goals throughout his subsequent two seasons. Unfortunately, there is a substantial element of Hoolahan’s career that has not enjoyed the slow and steady climb he has experienced at club level – his one solitary Irish senior international cap is in desperate need of some company.
He has started the 2012-2013 Premiership campaign brightly; no goal as yet but in his six appearances so far has continued to shine in Hughton’s combative midfield. Last week Hoolahan was hugely influential in his side’s 1-0 defeat of Arsenal at Carrow Road, playing a key role in orchestrating a massive result for the Canaries. Standing out in a midfield area consisting of the likes of Aaron Ramsay and Santi Cazorla is no easy task, but he appeared to do so with ease.
Tidy play, nimble touches and clear comfort on the ball in a crowded area made him a pleasing sight for the home crowd, amongst whom sat Giovanni Trapattoni and assistant Marco Tardelli, attending to monitor Hoolahan and Irish team mates Anthony Pilkington and Marc Tierney. Afterwards Hughton described the number 14 as “excellent”, a sentiment he opined should have no doubt been felt by the Irish management in attendance.
Hoolahan’s senior international career currently comprises of a second half appearance against Columbia in a friendly international in May 2008. He could have added to this in Ireland’s friendly against Serbia prior to the commencement of the Rio 2014 campaign; however injury resulted in him having to pull out of Trapattoni’s squad. As the Irish manager prepares to name his squad for the friendly against Greece this week, expectancy for the Norwich midfielder’s inclusion is high.
Back to Villa Park. Sitting deep in the North Stand’s sea of maroon and blue, where compliments for the opposition are rarely contemplated, and if so surely never vocalised – words of begrudging admiration grew steadily for the Irish number 14 as the game progressed. Initial murmurs of “he can play a bit”, “he’s a dangerous one”, soon grew to collective shifts of discomfort each time Hoolahan had the ball at his feet.
When the stadium commentator identified Villa keeper Guzan as Man of the Match, my neighbour, an elderly gentleman who had seemed incapable of either sitting / saying anything remotely positive for the past eighty-five minutes, sighed in resignation and finally conceded; “that Norwich fella, the small one, he should have got it. Wouldn’t mind him in our midfield”.
One can only hope, for Ireland’s sake, that Mr. Trapattoni feels the same.