Paul Lambert unwittingly provided a pithy summary of the Wes Hoolahan conundrum long before either of them had any connection with Norwich City.
Lambert signed the mercurial midfielder for Scottish club Livingston in January 2006 — a controversial deal, marked by insults — and said: “He’s got a great left foot, and he’s a clever player, but it is up to him to get up and running now, and to fit in.”
That little challenge about fitting in has been repeated throughout Hoolahan’s career. Successive managers at successive clubs have marvelled at his “great left foot” and his cleverness, but have torn their hair out while trying to shoehorn him into whatever formation they favoured. Of all Hoolahan’s perceived weaknesses, an inability to suit a rigid 4-4-2 or similar has been the one that has most frustrated employers.
So this cannot be the sort of hagiography you will read elsewhere.
There are too many binary opinions about footballers, declaring them either completely useless or utterly brilliant. If we want accurate appraisals, they must be more nuanced. And Mr Hoolahan’s days at Norwich have been pockmarked by daftness and disputes.
Yet, as he prepares for his last game in yellow and green, many are choosing to forget his spats and disasters.
That’s OK, because it is the fact that his genius is not unblemished that made his flashes of wizardry so exhilarating.
We knew that he didn’t dip glibly into his bag of tricks. We knew that he was sometimes performing perilously near the extremity of his ability, stretching and straining to keep his balance and the ball. At any minute the conjury might fail. So when the trick worked — when a beguiled defender was dumped on his bum, or an improbable pass threaded its way to a teammate — we shared a collective moment of awestruck wonder. Look at that! Look at that!
And if the trick didn’t work — if the conjuror’s cards spilled onto the floor — well, we still adored his audacity. We forgave him instantly and waited for the next attempt at sorcery.
Wes — like Elvis, Cilla or Delia, just his given name is sufficient — was born in North Dublin. His father says baby Wes kicked a balloon about in his cot and was throwing dummies as soon as he had discarded his comforter.
He played football on the streets and then for a famed youth team called Belvedere from age eight to 18. Other lads got trials at 14 and 15, but Wes was tiny and the trials didn’t come until he was 17 — and then the English clubs involved thought he was too frail. Sunderland, Leicester, Millwall and the club in the Suffolk town that tried in vain to become a city all gave him trials but then didn’t even bother to contact him again.
Ha, ha, ha, ha! Ten derbies for Norwich, no defeats. That penalty in the play-off semi-final. Ha, ha, ha, ha!
Sorry, where was I?
Wes joined Shelbourne, who won three consecutive League of Ireland titles and reached the third qualifying round of the Champions League in 2004.
In January 2006, Lambert telephoned Wes and offered him the chance to play in Scotland. Livingston were rock bottom of the SPL and Shelbourne manager Pat Fenlon said that going there would be a waste of Wes’s talent. There were rows. Wes was adamant about going. He went.
But a month later Lambert resigned after seven consecutive defeats and at the start of the following (2006-07) season Wes went on a season-long loan to Blackpool. His Livingston contract had a £75,000 “release clause” and the plan was for Blackpool to pay that in instalments during the loan, together with other loan fees, and Wes would become a Blackpool player at the end of the season.
Whatever football dreams Wes had enjoyed as a lad, they can’t have featured joining a club who had just finished 19th in the third tier, but he established himself in the team in a play-maker role and, in May 2007, appeared in the play-off final at Wembley as Blackpool beat Yeovil 2-0.
Blackpool boss Simon Grayson then tried to complete Wes’s signing. But Livingston said Blackpool had been late with several payments during the loan and so the release clause had been invalidated. They said £250,000 was a more appropriate fee.
Not for the first or last time, Wes had his own view. He promptly agreed two-year deal with Blackpool, stayed and trained with them. Blackpool successfully appealed to FIFA to get him registered and Wes kicked off the 2007-08 season in the Championship.
He faced Norwich four times in his time at Blackpool – twice in a 2006/07 in a fourth-round FA Cup tie that City won in a Carrow Road replay, and twice in the League in 2007/08 when it was one win each.
In the summer of 2008, Glenn Roeder signed Wes for Norwich for £250,000. The Irishman was already 26. He’d had just one season in the Championship. It didn’t seem a very exciting deal to Norwich fans.
Wes’s international career had stalled too. He’d won under-21 caps and had been an unused sub for the senior Irish team while still at Shelbourne, but by 2008, Irish manager Giovanni Trapattoni had only given Wes one senior cap and wanted an ordered, pragmatic approach that Wes didn’t fit.
Roeder only lasted to the January of the 2008-09 season at Norwich. Bryan Gunn, head of Roeder’s recruitment team, answered the call for temporary help and, in Tales From The City volume one, says this about his first game as caretaker manager:
“I made sure Wes was in the team. I felt he was a special player. He could be infuriating to managers, but if you got him playing and enjoying himself, you could be in business.”
Wes got the first goal in a 4-0 win over Barnsley, but we all know how the season unfolded and ended. Wes was injured in March, though, and so was not on the pitch when City were relegated to League One.
In Tales 1, Gunny talks about the summer following that relegation:
“I talked to the players and asked them who was up for the challenge. Wes was one that I knew would be wanted by other clubs, but one that I needed to keep at Norwich City. He wanted to play at the highest level possible, but I sat down with him and had a big conversation with him. I said that if he stayed but things did not go well, I would guarantee he could leave in the January. That was what I had to say in the circumstances we were in. Lee Croft was another I tried hard to persuade to stay. But he left for Derby and twice what we could pay. David Marshall left for Cardiff, Sammy Clingan went to Coventry. It was quite an exodus.”
So let’s pause and think about that. Wes was 27. He could not have expected too many more seasons in the game. His club were going to be in League One. Other players couldn’t wait to get out.
But he stayed. He had the promise of moving on if things were not going well, it’s true. But he stayed. I would love him for that, even if he’d done little more for the club I care about.
We all know how season 2009-10 began: with that 7-1 drubbing at home to Colchester. Wes was in our team that day. And when City then poached Colchester’s manager, he thought Wes was part of the problem.
Lambert exiled a group of players, including Wes and Gary Doherty, and told them to train with the kids. But neither threw strops, and both proved Lambert wrong. In fact, Lambert devised a system built around Wes: a midfield diamond, with Wes at its top point. And in that system Wes was the first line of defence as well as the fulcrum of attacks. If Norwich lost possession high up the field, it was Wes’s job to hassle the man on the ball as, behind him, City’s narrow midfield filed across into position.
With the ball he was a class above anything League One had to offer. He scurried and scampered, teased and tormented. He was magical. City were champions.
My favourite Wes memory comes from the following (2010-11) season, however: the game at Leicester in March 2011.
On the previous Saturday, at home to Preston, City’s charge up the Championship faltered. Preston took the lead, Grant Holt equalised, Wes stepped up to take a penalty — and chipped it straight at the grateful goalkeeper. It was City’s second consecutive draw, and a real setback.
So off we trooped to Leicester on the Tuesday night. And as soon as Wes came out for the warm-up, we told him exactly what we thought about his dopey penalty against Preston. We sang the song. You know the one.
Nah-nah, nah-nah, nah-nah, nah-nah, nah. Wes-ley Hoo-la-han, Hoo-la-han, WES-LEY-HOO-LA-HAN!
We forgave him. We treasured him. We loved him. And we sang the song throughout the game.
He responded by being absolutely, untouchably unplayable. He scored the first goal. A flaming header, for goodness sake! Norwich won, and promotion was back on.
Here’s Holty talking about his third goal in the hat-trick in the derby that season in Tales 1.
“I hit it as sweet as anything and I was off celebrating straight away because I knew it was in. Then ‘Wesley scored another one’ to get himself a line in my song!”
But even in that barnstorming season, with its plethora of drama, late goals and glory, Lambert was not averse to changing the system and squeezing Wes into a less-accommodating role.
And the following season (2011-12), in the Premier League, Lambert frequently abandoned the diamond and often “rested” Wes. I recall the 3-1 League defeat at Chelsea in the third game of the season. Wes was playing out wide and he gave the ball away once to often for Lambert, who hooked him off after 67 minutes.
When Chris Hughton took charge at Norwich, for the 2012-13 season, Wes forced his way into regular selection by his country. I believe Hughton, who won 53 caps for the Republic, played a part in that.
But the 2013-14 season brought the episode which very nearly ended City’s love affair with Wes.
On the first day of 2014, Wes had a spellbinding game at Palace, and Hughton, who, like others before and since, had been unsure the Irishman could be trusted to play a defined role, resolved to give him a long run in the side.
But Lambert let it be known he was interested in buying Wes for Aston Villa and — what a happy co-incidence for Villa! — Wes announced that he was injured and so couldn’t play in the FA Cup against Fulham, which would have left him Cup-tied. Then he made formal transfer request.
Hughton turned down that request but declined to select Wes after the Cup games (City lost in a replay) and did not recall him until late February. Then, when City played Villa Hoolahan pointedly did not celebrate when he scored the first goal of the game. Message-board warriors called him a traitor.
Wes told the club’s website: “I certainly didn’t mean to disrespect anybody with the celebration and I’m sorry if anyone’s taken it the wrong way because I was over the moon with my goal. I’ve got so much respect for the Norwich fans because they’ve given me a lot of support over the years. I did a fist-pump and throughout the whole game I ran my heart out for the fans and for the team”.
You did Wes. You always did. And we forgave you. We always did. Because you could do magic. Because you are a special player. Because you were our special player, for a decade. Because you stayed. Because you were at the heart of a charge up the divisions when we climbed 54 places in three seasons. Because you were too classy for the leaden opposition in the play-off semis. Because at Wembley you joined up all those intricate passing patterns. Because even this season, when there is so much sideways passing, your first instinct has always been to pass or run forwards. Because you’re not afraid to fail. Because you’re not afraid to dare. Because you’re Wes.