Wes Hoolahan casts magic at Cambridge United to boost Sky Bet League Two promotion challenge
Seeing Wes Hoolahan glide across the Abbey Stadium pitch has an almost serene quality.
He may be advancing in years in a football sense, but the 38-year-old exudes a boyish enthusiasm just to get the ball at his feet.
The joy of the game is to see Hoolahan create a goal, or score one himself, but the love of it is to see how he does it, those moments when the best take themselves out of the hurly burly to think their way around the pitch.
As Cambridge United press forward and the defence retreats, Hoolahan stops. The action is simple but the outcome is genius. In that central pocket, the No 14 now has the time and space not just to receive the ball, but pick his next pass. It is like perpetual motion.
You have to watch carefully as the temptation is to follow the ball, but the beauty is seeing someone like Hoolahan in full flight, in thought and action – he is the artist and the playing field is his canvas.
“I love having the ball at my feet, trying to look for different options and different angles,” he says, in such a matter of fact way.
“I always try to play it forwards when I have the ball at my feet, that is my first option.
“If not, I will go back and choose the safer option.
“Even in games, I always want the ball and it’s just the enjoyment of having the ball at your feet, controlling it, trying to manoeuvre it, and do things with it.”
It is a striking modesty that makes the magic that has captivated so many fans, of most notably Norwich City and Republic of Ireland and now the U’s, seem so simple; as if what Hoolahan has done on the biggest stages is what everyone else does in parks and pitches day in, day out.
Maybe that is no surprise though.
The passion for the sport started at the age of six in Dublin, and grew when going to Belvedere FC’s Fairview Park.
“We always played in the streets when I was younger, and everybody had a ball before school or after school; everybody was playing football on the streets,” he explains.
“My dad always liked playing football and my uncles always played football, so it was one of those things where my dad would take me to football most times, and I just fell in love with it straight away; kicking the ball and enjoying running around.”
Belvedere was particularly important as Hoolahan’s football fix had to come outside of education.
“The school I went to there was no football, it was either gaelic [football] or hurling you were playing so you weren’t allowed a football in our school,” he says.
“I had to pick gaelic, but every time I had the gaelic ball I just used to put it on the ground and just dribble it, and they would say, ‘you can’t do that’, so it was quite funny.”
Five-a-side indoor football was a staple of growing up, but that penchant for the ball at the feet was noticeable from an early age.
“People used to say ‘we have to give Wes a ball to himself’ because I used to always want the ball, never pass and try to dribble as many times as I could,” says Hoolahan.
An insight into why he is so comfortable in possession perhaps comes from playing futsal, which is always described as ‘having the emphasis on improvisation, creativity and technique’, and beach football in his youth.
“Futsal and beach football, you have to have tight control as the ball is bouncing everywhere, it’s so quick so you know you’ve got to get your feet quickly and concentration on the ball has to be first class,” explains Hoolahan.
“Loads of touches of the ball really helps. It encourages passing the ball – the short, sharp stuff when everyone is clustered together.”
It is easy to forget, though, that Hoolahan only started to play in the No 10 role when at Norwich in 2009.
Growing up a Manchester United fan, his idol was Eric Cantona and another player that captured the imagination was Gianfranco Zola at Chelsea; both players that dropped into the pockets to find space.
However, Hoolahan had developed his craft out wide.
“As a kid, I always played left wing so that was my position until maybe 26 or 27 when I moved to Norwich and Paul Lambert moved me into the middle to play as a No 10. My career then shot from there,” he says.
“It was always a natural thing. I had always drifted inside playing off the left but back then it was 4-4-2 for most teams. It was never No 10 or different formations you played.”
But when the opportunity was presented to move into a more central position, those years of studying others made all the difference.
“I used to watch a lot of football and visualise myself in those positions, and getting into that role, drifting off the wing and into those pockets,” he explains.
“You can teach people to visualise where to move, where to go, what position they should be in. You can teach them where to go if the ball is on the other side of the pitch, and things like that, but you have to probably visualise it yourself as well.”
One thing that has been noticeable this season is Hoolahan’s ability to look after himself.
You constantly hear that League Two is a tough division to get out of, it is difficult to play football in and demands physical resilience to cope with more route one tactics.
In that context, with Hoolahan at just 5ft 5in, you can see where some of those traits learned growing up on the streets of Dublin have come into their own.
“I used to play in Liberty House in a place called the Monto, five-a-sides, and everybody used to get smashed and kicked but there was no lying around crying, you get back up and you get on with it,” he says.
“It definitely toughens you up, and prepares you for playing with adults when you do get into professional football.
“It’s learning how to use your body, how to roll players, which angles players are coming at and drifting off them to use your hands and weight.
“Obviously, I’m not the strongest of players, I have a slight frame, but sometimes I manage to get away from players that you’d think are probably a bit stronger than you.
“It’s just about controlling the ball, moving in the opposite direction to where they’re going to go and bouncing off them.”
The physical attributes have certainly not stood in Hoolahan’s way during his career.
He was a huge hit at Shelbourne, playing a big part in their 2004–05 UEFA Champions League qualifying campaign, before coming to the UK.
After spells at Livingston and Blackpool, he made the switch to Carrow Road to become one of the club’s all-time greats, making 323 appearances for Norwich.
“When you’re a kid you always dream about playing on TV, playing for your country,” says Hoolahan.
“When I was in Ireland I always used to see the Irish team bus go by my house because I didn’t live too far away from Lansdowne Road at the time, and I always wished I would be on that bus one day.
“You always dream of playing for your country or at club level. It is every kid’s dream growing up but whether it happens or not is a different matter.
“It’s nice to have a dream, because if you don’t have a dream you don’t succeed.”
Those aspirations became a reality. Hoolahan was capped 43 times by the Republic of Ireland, and one of his goal scoring highlights was finding the net for his country against Sweden at UEFA Euro 2016.
Another of his most memorable moments was his first goal in the Premier League for Norwich.
“My first game was against Wigan away, and I managed to score on my debut in the Premier League so that stands out,” he says.
“It is the game and the goal; for my first game in the Premier League, all my family came over to watch it.
“It was a big occasion, we had just been promoted that year so to play in the Premier League and scoring a goal was definitely a highlight.”
However, in the broader picture, goalscoring does not give Hoolahan the greatest satisfaction – he is far happier setting up team-mates.
“For some reason, I love giving an assist. I always got a better buzz and enjoyment out of giving the ball to someone to score,” he explains.
“Obviously, I like scoring but I felt like when I play I always buzz off getting an assist and I like to create opportunities for other players.”
He has proved invaluable on both counts for the U’s this season.
Hoolahan has scored five goals and created six, but his all-round play to carve open teams has been just as priceless – even if starting deep in his own half at times causes some hair-raising moments for team-mates.
“I always want the ball, even if I’m in my own box and there are three players around me,” says Hoolahan.
“I will always want it, and Greg (Taylor, United’s captain) always has a heart attack as I always ask for the ball or pass in our own box.
“Greg knows, and I always say, it doesn’t matter where I am, I’m always going to try something. Sometimes it works out and sometimes it doesn’t, so I normally get a rollicking when it doesn’t.”
The style and guile has captured the imagination of United supporters, for whom the only disappointment will be that they were unable to be at the Abbey to witness it in person.
That does not just apply to seeing Hoolahan though, as the fans have had to watch remotely as the U’s have been the surprise package of League Two, always there or thereabouts in the promotion equation.
The speed at which the squad assembled by head coach Mark Bonner has gelled has been hugely impressive, especially when you consider that the opportunities for social occasions to help the bonding process have been virtually non-existent.
Hoolahan believes that the strict restrictions imposed by the pandemic has helped the squad appreciate what they have, and a good pre-season set up a flying start.
“It has been a difficult year, but we all know at the end of the day our aim is to get promotion and I think that sticks us all together,” he says.
“We’re all working hard for each other and it’s a great squad, great lads. There’s no arguing, we all get on with it, we all know our jobs, we all know what we’re there for and it’s a great squad to be around at the moment.
“People obviously tipped us not to be anywhere near it at the start of the season, but training with them at the start of the season and during pre-season, we quietly fancied ourselves and were quite confident.
“It’s easier saying it than doing it, so we’ve done so far but we haven’t really achieved anything yet. We’ve got five games to go and hopefully we can get the points we need to get over the line.
“We’ve got a lot of teams chasing us now so it will be an interesting four weeks to the end of the season.”
He added: “I’ve really enjoyed it. It’s been a fantastic season so far, it’s gone better than expected and hopefully we can finish the job off. It would be great to get promoted this year.”