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16 November 2015

The fascinating story of Wes Hoolahan, Norwich City's longest-serving player

It was March. In-form Nottingham Forest visited Carrow Road but their late play-off charge was thrown off course by a Norwich City juggernaut, brushing aside another rival en-route to the Promised Land. It was a commanding performance, the sort you associate with a team you ‘just know’ are going up. And at the centre of it was Wes Hoolahan.

During the 80 minutes he was on the field, it became clear the mercurial midfielder was at his best. Alex Neil had found an almost unbreakable formula since taking over from Neil Adams in January and Wes, as he deserves to be referred to from here on in, was an irreplaceable asset.

His individual display that afternoon stands as one of the finest by a City player in recent history. Each of his supreme attributes – the unquenchable, almost innocent thirst for the ball, the mesmerising capability to retain it, the vision and skill to distribute it to any quarter – were exhibited before an adoring crowd.

The opening salvo owed everything to his invention. Wes weaved through Forest’s midfield before stabbing a delightful reverse ball, using the outside of that trusted left boot, into Jonny Howson’s path. Later, he crisply despatched his penalty. The Eastern Daily Press lauded the ‘mercurial Irishman’ who ‘was at his best’. Howson would go on to say that he is the most accomplished teammate he’s ever played alongside.

With nearly a decade in the professional game, Wes has firmly established his reputation. Yet his is a fascinating career defined by a knack for proving doubters wrong. His journey to club and international acclaim has been neither straightforward nor conventional; he has had to jump hurdles since his earliest days. He’s been rejected, written off, sidelined and ignored, but through persistence and self-belief, the tiny boy from Portland Row has reached the top.

This is the tale of a Norwich City icon.

Fairview Park rests on a bank of the River Tolka in the north inner city of Dublin, and it is there where Belvedere, one of Ireland’s most established schoolboy football clubs, made its home.

‘Belvo’ has built a reputation for opportunity and excellence since 1971, when it was co-founded by Fergus McCabe and Vincent Butler as an offshoot from Belvedere Youth Club. Forty-four years later, Fergus remains the club’s Chairman, and Vincent, a retired bank manager, is Director of Football Affairs and a Life President. The modern game is business but their longevity is significant: for clubs like Belvedere, the devotion of its people, largely volunteers, is a richer resource than money.

Wesley ‘Weso’ Patrick Hoolahan, born in May 1982, grew up as one of four children to Robert and Ann in St Mary’s Mansions and then Portland Row, each a stone’s throw away from Fairview Park. The family home is still there and football is in their blood: Robert’s brother Richard Hoolahan played for Shamrock Rovers and Wes’ cousin through his mother’s lineage, Thomas Morgan, was once on the books of Blackburn.

He was educated at Colaiste Mhuire on the west side of Dublin. By his own admission, he wasn’t interested in academia, only football. Colaiste Mhuire favoured the Gaelic games over ‘soccer’ however, and one of his father’s best stories goes that Wes, representing his school’s Gaelic football team at Croke Park, was rebuked for playing too much with the ball at his feet rather than in his hands. Only Wes.

Robert has been a local community worker for four decades, driving busloads of disadvantaged children from the inner city to places of enjoyment and fulfilment. One of those places was Belvedere, and it was the coaches, parents and supporters lining the pitches of Fairview Park who were the first bewitched by Wes’ talent.

Vincent Butler recalls: "When Wesley was three or four, he was always with his dad. His older brother (Robert junior) played a little bit; he wasn’t a great player but he wasn’t bad either. He played with one of our older teams and Wesley used to go out with him, and eventually when Wesley was five we put him in our Under-8s. He was very good and spent three years with that team.

"He was always great to watch. He was small but able to take on people. He always wanted to have the ball; he would look for it all the time."

Wes’ father adds: "Robert played in the team above Wes. If Robert’s team were short of players, Wes would go up a year, it was crazy. Wes was tiny and Robert was nearly six feet tall. Robert wasn’t as good as Wes though. He was more of a right-sided midfielder, but he stopped after he was 15 or 16, whereas Wes kept playing."

Belvedere’s sides are known for playing a certain way, of placing an emphasis on skill and passing, so it’s no surprise that a young Wes quickly became one of their most talked-about prospects. Even though early on his age-group didn’t win any trophies, his star shone so brightly that he attracted his very own schoolboy fan club that would travel the city just to witness his individual brilliance.

But there was frustration too. As his age-group lifted their first league title at Under-15s level in 1997, Wes’ peers were being plucked from Belvedere for trials and contracts with teams in England. He was looked at by Sunderland, Millwall and, believe it or not, Ipswich among others, but to no avail. Both those at the club and his family knew that if Wes was to achieve his ambitions and follow in the footsteps of his hero, Eric Cantona, he would have to make the jump across the Irish Sea.

"Some of his mates who were on the team went to English clubs but Wes just wasn’t getting the breaks because they all said he was too small and he wasn’t strong or tough. They went off at 14, 15, and 16, but Wes was still having trials and it was the same old story, everyone said he wasn’t physical enough and lacked a yard of pace," his father explains.

Belvedere runs teams up to the Under-18s before their fledglings are released into the wild. At Under-17s level, everything came together for Wes’ boys in blue as they won the quadruple of League, League Cup, Under-17s Cup and the Leinster Youth Cup, with their midfield maestro the star. In the semi-final of the Under-17s cup against Foxford United, Wes scored a perfect hat-trick: right-foot, left-foot and head.

For its 40th anniversary in 2011, the club put together a commemorative magazine. Belvedere has produced ten full Republic of Ireland internationals but none adorned the pages more than Wesley Hoolahan, the ‘wizard of the wing’ and one of its proudest exports.

"If you don’t like Wes Hoolahan, you don’t like football."

That’s the view of Rob Butler, host of BBC Radio Norfolk’s popular Norwich City live phone-in 'Canary Call'. His point is a clear one: a player like Wes is the kind supporters pay to see. He’s the master of the unpredictable, the kind of hero whose name kids have printed on the backs of their shirts and whose skills they try to replicate in the school playground.

Yet it took until 2009, with Wes aged 27, for a system to be found that would go on to unlock the potential in his game at the highest level. It clicked when Norwich City were at one of their lowest ebbs as a club, relegated to the third tier of English football and humiliated by Colchester United on the opening day of the League One season, losing 7-1 in front of their own supporters at Carrow Road.

Paul Lambert’s explosive impact as manager - the Scot left Colchester soon after to join the Canaries - was rooted in a 4-4-2 formation utilising a narrow, diamond-shaped midfield. This allowed regular full-backs Russell Martin and Adam Drury to support what was essentially a three-man attack led by Grant Holt and Chris Martin, with Wes operating in a central position behind, at the top of the midfield quartet.


Michael Bailey, Norwich City writer and presenter, opines: "That’s where he’s always been best. I’ve never really seen it as a debate. Norwich managers have always given him a go on the left and then they stopped doing it."

But throughout his formative years at Belvedere, in the League of Ireland with Shelbourne and even during his first ventures on British shores with Livingston and Blackpool, Wes was used as a left-winger – though as Simon Grayson, the manager who brought him to the English game, explains, it wasn’t Wes' nature to strictly conform to a role in whatever system he played.

"We had to accommodate him to a certain degree. We would play him in the wide left area in a 4-4-2, but next thing Wes would be picking up the ball at right-back, going past a few people and then picking a few passes out," laughed Grayson.

"It ruined the shape of your team, but the other players realised that they had to do a lot more running around to cover areas that Wes had vacated, because he was that good a player he could just win games out of nothing. Strikers knew that when he picked it up, they would get opportunities. He could drop the shoulder and get out of a situation when you would think he had no right to do that."

Robert Hoolahan praised Lambert’s impact on his son, saying: "He gave him the freedom to go and play in that number 10 position. He didn’t have the bursting pace but he was clever, and playing there opened up a whole new avenue for him. I don’t ever think he thought himself that he would play there. Lambert gave him that confidence, and Alex Neil has done that too now."

The system has been different under Neil but Wes’ influence from that position of responsibility in the middle of the park has been equally strong. The current City manager has, on occasion, selected him on the left and even the right side of a four, but during the run-in leading up to May’s play-off final win over Middlesbrough, it was ‘in the hole’ off frontman Cameron Jerome where Wes thrived. At Wembley, his pass completion rate was 100 per cent.

Not all managers have found him central to their tactical plans, however: Wes didn’t score for the man who brought him to Carrow Road, Glenn Roeder, while in the 2013-14 campaign he made only 13 starts for the Canaries in all competitions under Chris Hughton and Neil Adams.

"I think it comes down to style of play," says Alex Neil. "If you’re a team that’s going to sit behind the ball and make yourself hard to break down to then hit teams on the counter, the problem that you’re going to have with Wes then is that he’s so far from the opposition’s goal when he picks the ball up.

"If you’re going to play that way, he probably doesn’t suit that style. I think the managers that didn’t choose him probably did the right thing based on that, because his impact is in the final third. If you can get your team in that final third on a lot of occasions, then he will win you games, there’s no question."

Giovanni Trapattoni, a strong advocate of discipline, had given his players a night off.

It was September 2008, and Ireland had just beaten Georgia 2-1 in their first World Cup qualifier. Trapattoni’s men had four days until their second group game against Montenegro and in the wake of an opening victory, he scheduled some downtime at their base in Wiesbaden, Germany. Alcohol was permitted, but there was a 1am curfew.

When Trapattoni found a huddle of players still up at 2am, he supposedly brandished a rolled-up copy of Gazzetta Dello Sport in the direction of Andy Reid, who, guitar in hand, was serenading the group. Reid allegedly refused Trapattoni’s request to call an end to proceedings, undermining his leader’s authority in front of his teammates. He never played for Ireland under Trapattoni again.

While there is certainly a case to say Reid shouldn’t have challenged his manager so openly, the fallout from that night also demonstrates Trapattoni’s obstinacy. This is a manager who believes in what he believes in, who, as Paul Doyle wrote in The Guardian on his departure from the post in 2013, ‘remained stubborn enough to believe that things would turn out as he foresaw no matter what was unfolding before his eyes’.

Trapattoni did achieve, though. The players he entrusted took their nation to a first major tournament in a decade at the 2012 Euros, but the Italian’s intransigence saw more talented players like Reid simply not given a look in. One example was a popular Dubliner making his name in England, by the name of Wes Hoolahan.

Dion Fanning is a journalist for the Irish Independent who has followed Wes’ career and the Ireland national team closely. He says: "It’s generally agreed that it’s taken far too long for him to be where he is with the Ireland team.

"He was very unlucky to be around in the Trapattoni era. If ever there was a manager who was only going to focus on his weaknesses, it was Trapattoni. All that would have interested him was what he wouldn’t do. That was a great shame, that Trapattoni had five years when Wes could have been doing something. He’s getting more recognition now."

Wes, now a trump card for Martin O’Neill’s Ireland, didn’t just find national recognition difficult to obtain under Trapattoni. It’s difficult to believe that during his years as a schoolboy at Belvedere, he failed to earn a single cap for his country ("The people in charge of the Irish teams always said that I was too small.") It was only after the quadruple-winning season at Fairview Park that Brian Kerr included him in his Under-17s squad.

Vincent Butler adds: "He’s very popular with the Ireland supporters now when he’s playing in internationals. He’s somebody they all want to be selected. He’s somebody people can relate to. He’s from the north end of the city of Dublin, which is a tough area, an underprivileged area in terms of housing and things like that. He’s a product from there, and he’s a local hero."

It was during his time at Shelbourne – their Tolka Park stadium just a short journey down Richmond Road from Fairview – that his bond with Irish fans was born. He became the iconic player for one of their most trophy-laden eras. With Wes at their heart, ‘Shels’ won three League of Ireland Championships and enjoyed a miraculous run to the Third Qualifying Round of the Champions League, where they met Deportivo La Coruna in 2004.

Even after glistening on the European stage, however, Wes’ move to England still didn’t materialise.

"There was one day when the lid just came off on how good he was, and that was against Deportivo at home. That day he was just unreal, he was unplayable. All the pundits and the papers were saying how good he was. It put him on the map, but a year and a half later he was still at Shelbourne!" recalls his father Robert.

Fanning comments: "Very little has really changed in what he does. It’s just people have realised that he can do it at a level that I think, for various reasons, people questioned for a long time. That was the thing with Wes. He was part of the team that had a great European run, and he was a player of great natural ability. He was a folk hero there, but there was always this thing about where he could go?"

At the time of writing, Wes has only 25 caps for the Republic of Ireland.  "In a strange way, it’s taken some time for him to be recognised. There is huge regret."

Trying to get Wes to do an interview is as futile as a defender attempting to win the ball off him: he nips away before you’ve had time to think, having sussed out an escape route prior to you even getting there in the first place. He shoots off, leaving you trailing in his wake. A cheeky smile, a glint of what Simon Grayson affectionately calls ‘skulduggery’ in his eye, and you don’t see him again.

This is his eighth season here, making Wes Norwich City’s longest-serving player – but after a day at Colney, you would never know it. His football is expressive and unforeseeable so it draws attention, but without the round thing at his feet, he craves nothing of the kind. He tiptoes through the corridors of the training ground, barely noticeable in the hubbub. Some days, you will miss him completely.

Whenever he’s substituted ("He’s not one who does 90 minutes on a regular basis"), that bashfulness is obvious. Wes has received some almighty ovations during his years gracing Carrow Road, but while some players will drink in the applause and take their time, he will shuffle off the pitch as fast as he can before showing his appreciation with an almost-embarrassed clap to supporters and taking his seat, safely away from 26,000 pairs of eyes.

Has this side of his character always been there? "He was very quiet and laid back," says Robert. "You couldn’t two words out of him! He was a bit of a messer at school but he was very shy and he just wanted to get on with things. He wasn’t one for confrontation."

Michael Bailey and Rob Butler have each followed his Norwich story from the beginning.

"Some players are shy and they don’t say anything and it becomes really hard. You need to warm Wes up a little bit, but away from the football he seems like a lovely, genuine bloke. In a way, he’s almost the archetypal ‘he lets his football do the talking’ player," Bailey says.

Butler adds: "He’s a true Irishman who has a sharp wit and he’s happy to talk, but you put a microphone in front of him and he’s quiet. I quite like that about him, he’s not one of those players who would want to go into the media. People love the shyness. All he wants to do is play football. He’s not interested in anything else."

Wes’ introversion shouldn’t mask his fierce determination. After leaving Shelbourne and home comforts behind in 2006, the two-and-a-half years before joining Norwich were, at times, a struggle. Paul Lambert recruited him for Livingston for a club-record fee. He made his professional debut, aged 23, in a Scottish FA Cup tie at Alloa on Saturday, January 7 but a month later, Lambert resigned. That summer, Livi were relegated.

Of the 19 matches Wes featured in, 16 were defeats. At this point in his career, he surely feared what his future held. With Livingston struggling for money, they were looking to get their highest earners out. Wes fell into that bracket and he was hurriedly flown down, at the behest of his employers, to Blackpool. He was accompanied by a familiar face: then teammate and future Norwich winger Robert Snodgrass.

"Livingston basically threw him on a plane, his brother went over to meet him at Blackpool, nobody really knew what was going on," reveals his father.

When he arrived at Blackpool’s training ground, their manager Simon Grayson had no idea who Wes was and what he was there for. After some explanation, the trial commenced. "They were going to pre-season in Latvia, and Wes was unreal. He scored two crackers and got a couple of assists, and Grayson said after the game "I actually fancy signing you!"" continues Robert.

He moved on loan to Bloomfield Road for the 2006-07 campaign, and he wasn’t to let the opportunity pass him by. He featured 49 times in all competitions for Grayson’s team as they won promotion to the Championship via the play-offs, beating Yeovil 2-0 at Wembley, a week after he had turned 25.

A permanent move was fancied by both parties, but Blackpool and Livingston locked horns over finances. Livingston accused the Seasiders of being tardy with their payments during Wes’ loan spell, and as a consequence believed that they should be owed a larger transfer fee.

The case, referred to as ‘Hoolagate’ by the Blackpool Gazette, went all the way to the sport’s world governing body, FIFA. Following a drawn-out saga, the transfer was eventually sanctioned. Over six years after graduating from Belvedere, Wes’ persistence had finally earned him the one thing he had always craved: a contract in English football.

"He’s determined and he’s focussed," outlines Alex Neil. "When it comes to work, he’s a top professional."

That goal against Nottingham Forest in March was his third in four Championship games, a series of strikes that came in the middle of a run of form strong enough to help Wes to the runners-up spot in the Player of the Season voting. He impressed sufficiently to see off 21-goal striker Cameron Jerome into third place and was only usurped by Bradley Johnson, who was the team’s talisman.

There’s a school of thought boasting this period as Wes’ richest vein of his Norwich career, rivalled only by his impact during the promotion winning years of 2010 and 2011. He has never been more appreciated by the club’s supporters, who have enjoyed his rejuvenation since overcoming a blip in January 2014. Wes handed in a transfer request, citing a lack of first-team action.

Bailey explains: "It was a difficult time for Wes. Central to everything is that he just wanted to be playing football."

"The fans forgave him, we moved on and it’s forgotten. He’s proven by how well he’s played on the pitch that he wants to be here," says Butler.

He loves Norfolk, with his wife and two children settled in the area, but how the next years of Wes will unfold is much down to the manager with whom he shares such a great relationship. There are only 13 months between him and Alex Neil, and that might be the secret to their understanding; why Neil had no qualms about leaving Wes out at Anfield in September a week after his creator had been unrelenting against Bournemouth.


"He has his moments where he’s a wee bit tired in the mornings and he’ll ask me if he can take it a bit easier, and that’s me just managing his load with him. The fact is we get on so well that I’ve got a trust in him and he’s got a trust in me, means that I know he’s not taking the p*** and that I can work around him sometimes," divulges Neil.

"I don’t think there are too many like Wes in the sense that he can do things other players can’t do. He’s one of those players who will get you off your seat when you go to watch football, and there’s not a lot of them nowadays. It makes him a bit special."

Next week’s European Championship play-off marks a significant point in Wes’ career. A result over two legs for Ireland against Bosnia, and he will be heading for France to represent his beloved country and its supporters; those who relate to him, the tiny boy from Portland Row.

It’s nearly ten full years since Wes Hoolahan, the undiscovered gem of Irish football, left his homeland to pursue his aspirations. We’re just lucky that he went on to become Wes Hoolahan, the Norwich City icon.


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