Criticism when he’s out of the team and no praise when he’s in it, Martin O’Neill is getting hammered for a perceived lack of trust in playmaker Wes Hoolahan. But the stats don’t back it up. Can the Irish manager’s philosophy really be summarised in the treatment of one player?
Proof that Ireland are more than brute-strength and aggression, diminutive Wes Hoolahan is definitely the creative beat at the heart of the Irish midfield. Ignored by previous manager Trapattoni, despite the current furore in the press, Hoolahan is an integral part of Martin O’Neill’s plans even if he doesn’t start every game.
Though fresh-faced, the 34-year-old’s journey to the top has been a long one. A star with Shelbourne in the League of Ireland, the Dubliner then had spells in both Scotland and the lower English divisions before making it to the Premier League. He’s back in the Championship following Norwich’s relegation from the top flight where’s he’s made ten appearances this season.
But it’s Hoolahan’s importance at international level where his worth is really felt, as Ireland have laboured to impress at the start of World Cup qualifying. A perceived lack of trust on Martin O’Neill’s part has pundits up in arms but the arguments don’t really stack up.
It seems peculiar that O’Neill is criticised for not playing Hoolahan but gets no praise when he does. Hoolahan was named man of the match for Sunday’s game against Moldova but it seems this had little to do with the manager actually playing him in the team.
“Ireland did not play well at home to Georgia last week and it was a surprise that Hoolahan was not introduced, but not for the reasons Eamon Dunphy or Damien Duff say, that O’Neill doesn’t trust or compliment the player. In fact, it was a surprise because O’Neill usually does bring Hoolahan into the action, if he is not already starting the game.”
Hoolahan didn’t play away to Georgia way back in the opening game of Euro 2016 qualifying and that seems to have clouded many people’s judgement of Martin O’Neill, not least the RTE panel, Dunphy in particular. This was most certainly a hangover from the Trapattoni era. Shunned by the Italian, Hoolahan’s continuing absence for the first qualifier under Trap’s successor allowed Dunphy to continue to beat that drum, something he did throughout the Euro 2016 campaign. Except it wasn’t backed up by the statistics.
The pundit repeated his argument after the Polish defeat in the final game of the campaign that Martin O’Neill didn’t trust the player, except the Irish coach did trust him to play a role in all, or part of, eight of our ten qualifiers. A pillar of Dunphy’s argument was that Hoolahan wasn’t played in the defeat away to Scotland in Glasgow, except he wasn’t in the squad. He was injured. The Norwich playmaker started six qualifiers, including at home to Poland, Scotland and Germany, also contradicting Dunphy’s assertion that O’Neill only wanted to play him “against the lesser teams.”
Dunphy branded Hoolahan’s omission from the starting line-up away to Poland as ‘stupid and shocking.’ But in his pre-match interview the Ireland manager explained that Hoolahan didn’t feel fit enough to start: “He came himself to me and said that he’s feeling really, really sore.”
If that wasn’t enough, the player himself explained the situation:
“Me and Martin had a discussion before the game. Obviously, I didn’t train all week and I’d been taking painkillers. I spoke to Martin and Martin was fine. If you’re not fully fit then you don’t want to go into a massive game. You want 11 players wanting to do well and all being fit. You don’t want to let your team-mates down. I’m sure Martin appreciated it. He was happy that I spoke to him.”
What’s more, Hoolahan played in all four Irish games at Euro 2016 winning man of the match against Sweden. When rumours circulated prior to the finals that the player might retire after the tournament, O’Neill came out in public to advise against it, saying despite his age, he was fresh-faced given the amount of games he had actually played in his career.
Damien Duff’s claim that O’Neill seems reluctant to praise Hoolahan in interviews appears more to do with the prickly atmosphere that seems to pervade any chat between the manager and RTE’s Tony O’Donoghue. Tony must dread even mentioning Hoolahan’s name now in discussions with the Irish boss. It’s also something of a sweeping statement from Duff. There are plenty of examples of O’Neill heaping praise on the former Shels man: “When we have a problem unlocking defences, he’s done it before.”
Hoolahan wasn’t brought on as Ireland struggled away to Serbia but the glory of football is that it’s a game of opinions. With the result in the balance, and the pitch in a shocking state, at least one argument says O’Neill was rewarded with a battling, if undeserved point.
“That’s backed up by Didi Hamann’s stance which has put him at odds with Duff and Dunphy. Age and opposition are most certainly a factor in the German’s argument and he praised O’Neill’s ‘game management’ thoughout his time as Ireland boss.”
There’s no doubt that Ireland are a more attacking threat when Wes Hoolahan is in the team. He is the only player capable of breaching a defence with a pass and that actually speaks volumes about those around him. When Wes is not there, neither Whelan nor McCarthy, and disappointingly Hendrick recently, are willing or able to contribute in a similar attacking way which is why Ireland struggle to break teams down.
We want to see more of Hoolahan because we want to see more from Ireland as a team. Maybe we’d be better off questioning why others can’t do what he does, rather than questioning the manager who perhaps has more trust in the player than he’s given credit for.