The lost talent of Wes Hoolahan and what it means for Ireland's future
When Wes Hoolahan was left out for Ireland, it wasn’t unusual to hear those who supported - or at least understood - the decision pointing out that it wasn’t just Martin O’Neill who had reservations about using him in certain games.
They would highlight the long list of club managers who might have had similar doubts and use that as evidence that the case for Wes was overblown.
“There is obviously a big doubt as to whether he can do it against the stronger, quicker, more physical teams,” Liam Brady wrote in 2015. “Better managers than me have shied away from playing him in those games, for both club and country.”
What this proved beyond the existence of the suffocating conformity of conventional wisdom was always hard to establish.
That a list of managers of varying degrees of ability had doubts about Wes Hoolahan could easily have been dismissed as the lack of confidence of the mediocre.
It could easily have been seen as having nothing to do with what he could offer Ireland, especially at a time when Irish talent was scarce.
Instead it was seen by some to be a persuasive point, which was often followed up with the clincher that, after all, he was only playing for Norwich. How could Wes go from Norwich one minute to the elevated plane of international football the next, this argument went?
This was not the game, set and match those who stated it seemed to believe. In fact, there seemed to be a misunderstanding of the international game's position in football’s ecosystem.
Wes Hoolahan was needed only by Ireland, not Argentina, and it didn’t really matter what he did for his club, wherever it was.
The reality is that Wes Hoolahan was a victim of Sturgeon’s Revelation, the immutable law that states that “90 per cent of everything is total crap”.
In Hoolahan’s case the total crap was the opinion of football managers who lacked the imagination to do anything but judge him by what he couldn’t do.
What he could do should have been enough to allow him to become a central figure in the Ireland team for ten years, rather than a player who had to squeeze in his great performances for his country accompanied at all times by a ticking clock - the sense - always stressed by those who pointed out where he played his club football and which managers didn’t pick him - that he was running out of time.
But his age didn’t matter, except to underline that the clock was ticking in another way: Ireland was running low on talent and soon the talent would dwindle further.
There was also a strange and ongoing need for validation from others, a feeling that if Wes Hoolahan wasn’t recognised by those who manage in club football in England, it would be a strange eccentricity bordering on the irresponsible to grant him some freedom in playing for Ireland. Or even simply to pick him.
Well, we better get used to not receiving that external validation as it becomes harder and harder for Irish players to play at the highest level.
We may be forced to accept that the only way to judge an international player is by what he does for the international side.
Hoolahan went out on Thursday saying all the right things and thanking all the right people, but he is a victim too.
Hoolahan needed a manager who realised that his vision was what Ireland needed and ignored the downsides and the negativity. He wasn’t lucky enough to find one.
He needed a brave manager at a time when Ireland were coached by conservatives, conservatives who felt it was more important to focus on what a creative talent like Hoolahan couldn't do than what a negative player couldn't do.
Ireland now must look to the future without Wes Hoolahan and over the coming years, it may become clear that it wasn't just Hoolahan who missed out.
Martin O’Neill, as he demonstrated in his sour interview with Tony O’Donoghue, doesn’t forget the past so maybe he will learn from the mistakes made with Hoolahan.
Maybe if another player with his gifts comes along, it will be understood that international football requires a certain set of skills and when a player who can open up teams, find space and see a pass comes along, he should be cherished not sidelined because of his weaknesses.
In his interview with O'Donoghue, O'Neill pointed out that clubs in England have high regard for what he has done. That external validation is irrelevant when it comes to the manager and the absence of it was irrelevant when considering Hoolahan's international career.
Those who loved Wes Hoolahan - foremost among them Eamon Dunphy - were criticised for their romantic devotion to the player and sometimes overblown claims about the player. Criticising Dunphy for hyperbole is like having a pop at the sun for rising, but if Hoolahan didn’t stir something in you, then you were watching the wrong sport.
And it was his gift to make things seem possible, so maybe it was understandable that his devotees would start to believe in the impossible.
The boy who slept with a football, who ran to school with a ball at his feet, was the kind of player who made people instantly wistful.
There was the sense, always present, that Hoolahan deserved more than an international career shoehorned into his thirties. More importantly, perhaps, was the sense that Ireland deserved more than managers who didn't do enough with this talent.
With Wes Hoolahan, it was easy to become nostalgic for a past that didn't exist, to wonder why we hadn't been watching him play for Ireland for ten years rather than hoping he could make something happen before it was too late.
But it's always later than we think and, over the years to come, Ireland will come to lament all that was lost, even as they make the same mistakes again.