Back in the recent darker days of our past, when we all clung to the still effective trickery of Darren Huckerby, our very own yellow shirted catalyst, Norwich Manager Glenn Roeder pulled a dead rabbit out of the hat by suggesting that it was maybe time to look for “new heroes”
It was rhetorical of course. There was no ‘maybe’ about it. The die had been cast and, as many immediately suspected, that quote was a pre-emptive strike aimed at those who had hoped that the hero of the day, and many previous to it, Darren Huckerby was to be given a new contract at the club.
Football supporters can be an emotive bunch at the best of times but there was no sentiment attached to those who believed he should have got one. Hucks was 31; three years younger than Paul Scholes was at the time and four years younger than Ryan Giggs-both of whom were still playing in the Premier League. In Giggs’ case, the smoking pace had long since gone, but that hardly mattered, he had replaced it with guile, the eye for a killer pass and an unerring ability to find himself in the right place at the right time. He no longer needed to run at 100mph to be effective and neither did Darren Huckerby.
Like I said. No sentiment attached. Huckerby could still have done the proverbial job for Norwich. His game was different but the talent was still there. As was the character and force of personality at both Colney and in the dressing room.
That was Roeder’s problem. In Huckerby he saw a threat to his position as King of Carrow Road, a character and personality who was bigger than he was, more popular than he was and more influential, as far as the other players were concerned, than he was.
As far as the Huckerby era at Carrow Road was concerned, that was it. The death sentence. Roeder had got out the axe, and publicly sharpened and wielded it. The King was dead.
Once the resultant fires had been extinguished, the question on everyone’s lips was: who is going to be the new hero?
Norwich fans have always hung their hats on a hero. The larger than life personality, one who fitted the shirt better than we ever could-and revels in wearing it. Goss, Fleck, Gunn, Roberts-all recent examples. With Huckerby the dearly departed from a squad that now included names like Otsemobor, Pattison and Fotheringham, you were entitled to wonder. Krypton had never seemed so distant-though, to be fair, Roeder raised our hopes when he called Omar Koroma a “lovely mover”. You’ll need to ask supporters of Forest Green Rovers if that still applies today.
Such was the relative apathy amongst supporters at this time, the new arrivals at the club that Summer tended to result in people referring to Wikipedia in an attempt to find out more about them, rather than herald the arrival of the new hero. Omozusi, Kennedy, Clingan…Hoolahan.
Wait a moment. Did they mean Wes Hoolahan?
This signing, at least raised a few eyebrows. Hoolahan was that unusual thing, a known quantity. Some remembered him from a FA Cup 4th round game against Blackpool. Popular opinion then-and now-was that he’d had a good game, that he looked decent. The problem was, the player he’d been brought into replace had also played in both of those games, scoring three goals in the process, one of them the sort of twenty yard plus effort that only he could pull off. But no matter. Hoolahan was welcomed to the fold but judgement was withheld and renewed talk of new heroes was muted. After all, the fanfare that greeted the arrival of one David Strihavka a year earlier had concluded with a strangled note.
In short, no-one was getting particularly excited about anything or anyone.
Like the most spectacular of fireworks, Wes was a slow burner. He made 35 appearances that season, scoring two goals. With added occasional individual brilliance. Somehow though, you knew that, one day, we’d be in for a treat. That ignominious class of 2008 lit the yellow and green touch paper, but it took the mind of a man made in Glasgow and finished in Dortmund to realise what an explosive asset Hoolahan could be. Paul Lambert initially seemed nervous of Hoolahan, failing to start him in any of his first four games for the club. However, it could just be that he was watching him in training, day by day, eventually realising that, even in the harum-scarum world of League One, Hoolahan would be a priceless talent and one which you had to throw away the well thumbed book of convention for, and pick a team to suit him, rather than the other way around.
Wes duly found himself in a free role at the top of a midfield diamond and the rest, give or take the occasional tactical tweak, is history.
There are those who will call Wes Hoolahan and his rapidly disappearing ilk, a “luxury” player. It is a phrase that I loathe. Functional football with off the shelf players may well be effective and the mantra of all the coaching certificates there are, but give me the bespoke player, the one who doesn’t fit that norm every day. Every team should have one. But most don’t. What they can bring to teams is all of what Wes Hoolahan brings to Norwich, he of the twinkling feet and quicksilver mind, the man who has been given a licence to play the game as he sees fit-and for that trust placed in him, we are now being richly rewarded.
The announcement last weekend that he had signed a contract extension that kept him at the club until 2015 was regarded with as much excitement as a new signing would have been. And rightly so. He is the tick in our tock, the player who not only makes things happen on the pitch, but, through his vision and flair for the unexpected, makes things happen of other players as well. He is a reason to get on your feet and hold your breath whenever he is on the ball, just as his illustrious predecessor was.
And. Like it or not, when Roeder casually tossed aside Darren Huckerby not that far short of five years ago and spoke of the need for new heroes, he had found one of them. I wonder if, with Wes now starring in the Premier League on a weekly basis, he permits himself a small smile of satisfaction for being the man who brought him here?