When I look back at Glenn Roeder’s tenure as Norwich manager, I don’t have many fond memories. I’m far from alone on that front.
From the arrogant dismissal of the opinions of fans, journalists, even staff, on a routine basis, to the sub-par football, to the miserly manner in which he concluded the Norwich careers of Messrs Dublin and Huckerby, it’s fair to say we won’t be erecting a bronze statue of Roeder on Canary Way anytime soon.
One moment that does stand out in the memory for a positive reason however, came in the wake of Huckerby being ushered unceremoniously out the door.
Roeder issued a rallying cry announcing that it was “time for new heroes” and in the weeks that followed an unassuming young Irishman was ushered quietly into Colney, with a reputation as an up-and-comer with a lovely left foot.
If we thank Glenn Roeder for nothing else, we can thank him for Wes Hoolahan.
Although he had an inauspicious first season, stranded out on the left-wing where his lack of pace was derided by the more cerebrally-challenged as the sign of a poor player, Paul Lambert retooled the mercurial Dubliner as an attacking play-maker.
Great things followed.
After nine seasons and over 300 games, Hoolahan earned himself a place in the Football League’s Championship Team of the Decade, and a slot in the Norwich City Hall of Fame. He is, without a doubt, one of the most successful, talented and popular Norwich City players ever to have graced Carrow Road.
When Alex Neil was dismissed, one of the rumours that flew around was that he had decided to bring an end to the Hoolahan era at the close of this season and this was reportedly one of the factors that had tipped the board’s hand.
Whether you believe this or not, the idea of Wes not being here was an alien concept for many fans to get their heads around. Throughout all the ups and downs, from the dark days of Roeder and Gunn, to the wonder years under Lambert, the personal despair of being sidelined by Hughton, and a renaissance under Neil, Wes has been a constant for the fans.
The first name on the team sheet for many.
But is it time for a player who will, no matter how much he has given, be 35 in May, to pass on the baton to a new generation? Saturday’s virtuoso by Alex Pritchard has prompted calls, although on the day Wes matched him blow for blow.
It can’t be denied that the demands of a 46 game Championship season, playing Saturdays and Tuesdays, (while still playing for the Republic of Ireland in every international break) are catching up with the wee man. As much as we may want him to, he can’t go on forever.
So, is it now time for new heroes once more?
The sentimental answer is of course, a resounding No. With his tenth season approaching and a “Westimonial” in the offing, nobody wants to see number 14 wave his magician’s wand goodbye in an anticlimactic fashion after this dismal season.
Wes has been the on-field architect of so many of our turnaround successes that to try and attempt a return to form without him next season seems incongruous.
The pragmatic answer is undoubtedly less palatable. At his age, and with Pritchard and James Maddison ready-made like-for-like replacements already waiting in the wings, the rumoured Neil plan appears logical.
Both players are desperately in need of more first-team starts; burgeoning careers stalling since arriving at Carrow Road.
Is Wes’s presence a contributing factor? Undoubtedly. A quote from Alex Ferguson, when there was talk of him being a Director of Football to help David Moyes after retiring himself as manager does come to mind: “If you’re still in the road, you’re in the way”.
As we’ve found this season, it’s easy to get overrun in the physically imposing world of the Championship with players the size of Pritchard, Maddison, the Murphy’s and Hoolahan playing together.
Whilst in an Alex Neil 4-2-3-1 there were occasions where Pritchard and Hoolahan have blossomed together (Saturday being the obvious and best example), there have been other times, such as Barnsley away, where we’ve been battered by inferior, more robust teams. By continuing with Wes are we sentimentally shoe-horning him in to the detriment of the team?
To turn the argument back again, although physically Wes may be tiring, I genuinely don’t think he’s declining in terms of quality. In fact, in terms of his overall performance per game I’d argue that this has been one of Wes’s best seasons.
Buoyed on by his virtuoso displays for Ireland last summer Wes’s form has been the reason why Pritchard has struggled to get a game. Neil was obviously planning to get more from his £9m summer signing but it’s impossible to drop a player of Hoolahan’s quality when he’s still creator-in-chief for a team that is scoring more goals than all but four sides in Europe.
In my 30-odd years of following Norwich I can think of only two players whose very presence on the team sheet forces the opposition to have to build their defensive plans around them: Darren Huckerby and Wesley Hoolahan.
As much as I love both Pritchard and Maddison, neither are at that level yet, and may never be. What Wes also does is he leads.
My favourite Wes moments aren’t the tricks and flicks, the sublime through-balls, the teasing drag-backs. It’s when the team are trying to raise the tempo, and all 5ft 6 of Wesley Hoolahan is haranguing giant centre-backs like a fly bouncing on a lion’s nose.
He may get swatted aside, but he comes back and does it again. And again. And again. And eventually we force an error and get the ball back.
It’s not always Wes that wins it, but when he starts pressing high the rest follow. He’s not shouting and ordering his team mates around. He’s leading by example. I would hate to lose that too soon.
Personally, I don’t think it’s the end of our time with Wes but I’m unashamedly biased and there are certainly several sides to the argument. Like the enigma himself, it is a debate that will run and run.