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Ireland: The Myth That Martin O’Neill Doesn’t Trust Wes Hoolahan

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 we really summarise the Irish manager’s philosophy in the treatment of one player?

Proof that Ireland are more than brute-strength and aggression, diminutive Hoolahan is definitely the creative beat at the heart of the Irish midfield. Ignored by previous manager Giovanni Trapattoni and despite the current furore in the press, Hoolahan is an integral part of 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 has had spells in both Scotland and the English lower leagues before making it to the Premier League. However, he’s now back in the Championship following Norwich’s relegation from the top flight, where he has made ten appearances this season.

But it’s Hoolahan’s importance at international level where his worth is really felt, as Ireland are labouring to impress at the start of World Cup qualifying. An apparent lack of trust on O’Neill’s part has pundits up in arms but the arguments don’t really stack up.

2018 FIFA World Cup Qualifier, Stadionul Zimbru, Chisinau, Moldova 9/10/2016 Moldova vs Republic of Ireland Ireland's Wes Hoolahan Mandatory Credit ©INPHO/Ryan Byrne

It seems peculiar that the manager gets criticised for not playing Hoolahan but receives no praise when he does. Hoolahan was named Man of the Match after Sunday’s game against Moldova but it seems this has little to do with the 64-year-old actually playing him in the team.

Ireland did not play well at home to Georgia 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 RTÉ panel, and Dunphy in particular. This was most certainly a hangover from the Trapattoni era. Shunned by the Italian, Hoolahan’s 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 Poland defeat in the final game of the campaign. 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 the pundit’s assertion that O’Neill only wants to play him “against the lesser teams.”

2018 FIFA World Cup Qualifier, Stadionul Zimbru, Chisinau, Moldova 9/10/2016 Moldova vs Republic of Ireland Ireland's Martin O’Neill Mandatory Credit ©INPHO/Ryan Byrne

Dunphy branded Hoolahan’s omission from the starting lineup 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 (via the Eastern Daily Press):

“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 a Man of the Match award 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. The coach said despite his age, Hoolahan was fresh-faced given the amount of games he had actually played in his career.

Duff’s claim that the Ireland boss seems reluctant to praise Hoolahan in interviews appears more to do with the prickly atmosphere around any chat between the manager and RTÉ’s Tony O’Donoghue. Tony must dread even mentioning Hoolahan’s name in discussions with O’Neill. 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.”

2018 FIFA World Cup Qualifier, Stadionul Zimbru, Chisinau, Moldova 9/10/2016 Moldova vs Republic of Ireland Ireland's Wes Hoolahan Mandatory Credit ©INPHO/Ryan Byrne

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 the former Aston Villa boss 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 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 Glenn Whelan nor James McCarthy, and disappointingly Jeff 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.

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