WES Hoolahan flitted briefly in and out of Scottish football’s collective consciousness nine years ago as part of the Livingston side relegated from the SPL.
Tomorrow night in Dublin, one of Hoolahan’s closest friends has warned that the Irish attacking midfielder could emerge as a real headache for Scotland in the crucial Euro 2016 qualifier.
Wes is totally different to anything else Ireland have got in their squadRussell Martin
Norwich City captain Russell Martin has been a team-mate of Hoolahan’s at the Carrow Road club for the past six seasons and is in no doubt about the 33-year-old capabilities as he prepares to face him at the Aviva Stadium.
“Wes is a very gifted footballer, technically very good,” observed Martin. “He is totally different to anything else Ireland have got in their squad. On his day, he can be a special player, that’s for sure. So if he does play, he will be one to look out for and make sure we do a job on him.
“He’s been brilliant for us at Norwich, but he has only really got himself into the Ireland squad in the last couple of years.
“It has come quite late for him and I know he’s been pushing hard for it for a long time. He enjoys going away with Ireland and he is desperate to be involved. Even if he only comes on for 20 or 30 minutes, he will always make something happen. We have to make sure we are alert to that.”
Hoolahan was named man of the match when the Irish drew 1-1 at home to Poland in March, a results which kept them on Scotland’s coat-tails in Group D.
Republic manager Martin O’Neill caused a stir by claiming Hoolahan is only suited to home fixtures when the Irish are on the front foot, a comment which enraged outspoken pundit Eamon Dunphy who accused O’Neill of undermining the player’s confidence.
Martin is more understanding of O’Neill’s reasoning, but also points out that Norwich boss Alex Neil has had no such issues with Hoolahan since taking charge of the Canaries and leading them back into the Premier League.
“International football is different to club football,” added Martin. “So maybe that’s how Ireland approach it. It maybe suggests he is going to play against us on Saturday.
“If you are going to set up defensively away from home, then Wes is maybe not the player you put in there, because of his size and physicality. But if you are going to play and think you will have a lot of the ball, then he is probably the one you want.
“He has played home and away for Norwich since Alex Neil came in, though. He has done really well, because under Chris Hughton he wasn’t playing too much at all. Since the new gaffer has come in, Wes has done great.
“I don’t think he has scored as many goals or come up with as many assists as he would have liked. But it’s just the way he holds on to the ball – it allows others to play as well.
“The Norwich fans love him as well. He gets bums off seats, simple as that. Sometimes you need that in a game which is a bit flat.
“That’s the kind of thing he is capable of doing on Saturday. But with the kind of midfield players we’ve got, we are more than capable of dealing with that threat.
“They have other players all over the pitch who can cause problems, like Aiden McGeady, so they might go with a different formation this time.
“But we have players in there like Scott Brown, James Morrison and Darren Fletcher – and also Charlie Mulgrew who was outstanding against them there when we beat them in Glasgow – who can deal with that.
“Wes did really well for Ireland against Poland in Dublin. He is a really creative player and picks up nice positions. He is an intelligent footballer. We will go through their players and team individually before Saturday and I’m sure the manager might ask Steven Whittaker and myself a bit more about Wes. We will give him all the info we can. Wes is a cracking guy. He’s really unassuming and works really hard. You want him in your team at training, that’s for sure. He’s probably made a fool of me in training a few times! I haven’t texted Wes this week, not a word. I’ll do it after – if we win!”
Martin was rested for last Friday’s friendly against Qatar at Easter Road but is expected to return tomorrow for his 19th cap.
The 29-year-old has established himself as a first choice central defender under Gordon Strachan’s management, although it is not so clear who will partner him on this occasion.
“We’ve got a few options,” observed Martin. “Charlie Mulgrew has played there before, Gordon Greer played well again against Qatar, Christophe Berra is here and I’m hoping to play.
“If Charlie gets the nod in there then I’m sure he’ll do the job. He’s played there lots of times for Celtic. I think one of his strengths is his versatility, he’s comfortable on the ball wherever he plays.
“Charlie is a big boy and a good athlete so he can slot in anywhere and he played really well against Qatar. We played briefly together in the friendly against England at Celtic Park where we were up against Wayne Rooney so it doesn’t get much tougher.
“I’ve played lots of times with him in training so if we were asked to play again it won’t be a problem. When you come away you’re playing with good players so it’s fairly easy and the way the manager wants to set us up is very clear so regardless of who comes in they know what’s expected of them. In terms of pairings all over the pitch, then the more you play together the better it is but when you come away and it’s really clear then it’s easy to slot in. Grant Hanley and myself did well for quite a long period of time but he’s been out injured for the last few games.
“Whoever I’ve played with – Christophe or Gordon – it’s always gone pretty well. Our defensive record has been pretty good and it’s probably because of the clarity from the manager and his coaching staff.”