Weso: An underappreciated once in a generation genius
Following the fortunes of Shelbourne since I was a child has brought with it a wide range of emotional instability that can only come when you follow a football team.
The feeling of pride and joy that came with the success of the early 00’s was sadly short lived. In recent times Shels fans have become more accustomed to prolonged periods of disappointment and frustration.
When I reflect on the happier times, when Shels were successful and silverware was plentiful. For a time it looked like Ollie Byrne’s dream might become a reality. Ollie’s optimism was infectious. The club’s future prospects appeared prosperous and Wes Hoolahan was at the centre of that, his slight 5'5" frame engulfed by an over-sized jersey features prominently in the memories I replay in my mind’s eye.
Wes was often the best player on the pitches he graced, his ability on the ball, courage to always look for it and vision to pick the perfect pass left fans in awe of him. I’ve been lucky enough to watch two players play in real life that left me speechless, Weso was one, the great Tony Sheridan was the other.
While fans and teammates marvelled at his ability, opponents dreaded facing the Dubliner, kicking and pushing Hoolahan was not always an effective ploy to curb his influence, it required getting in close quarters with an evasive and tricky player who left some of the great defenders in the League of Ireland on their respective arses.
Some clubs went to innovative lengths to stop Weso, Trevor Croly told me once that whle he was playing at St Pats the groundsman at Richmond Park would be known to leave the grass grow that little longer in parts. The hope was to slow down Weso with the ball at his feet. Did it work? "Weso could play in his slippers."
23-Aug-2004, Shelbourne FC fans David Cronan 15, Patrick Cronan, 17, Darren Cleary, 15 and John Brennan, 14, all from Dublin, play soccer on the Playa de Riazor ahead of the second leg of the third qualifying round of the Champions League | Haydn West/PA Archive
Like many Shels fans, watching the Reds match Deportivo in the Champions League sticks out of one of my own favourite football moments, 24,000 people at Lansdowne Road, Wes Hoolahan was immense and suited the stage better than most.
He was a threat from start to finish and Enrique Romero struggled at times to keep him at bay. Wes Hoolahan was arguably the best player on the pitch on a night where Shels faced the team who were 3rd in La Liga, and the year before had made it to the semi-finals of the Champions League.
‘Weso for Ireland’ was a chant that reverberated around Tolka Park in the early 2000's. He didn’t make his debut until May 2008. When he did play, Weso made a difference. The bravery to get on the ball, the consistency in his ability to pick a pass to a team mate was a hall mark of a once a generation talent.
Hoolahan was criminally underutilised, the majority of his caps came under Martin O’Neill but he was the only manager in the entirety of Hoolahan’s international career to put any kind of trust in his abilities.
He won admirers away from home before any international managers took note. Hoolahan played for the Republic of Ireland U21s in a friendly in 2002, they were beaten 2-0 but Weso was Ireland’s best player.
A Russian journalist who was impressed by Hoolahan asked Mick McCarthy why a player with such natural talent played for Shelbourne and not Manchester United. McCarthy’s answer gave some of the reporters in attendance the impression that he wasn’t sure who Wes Hoolahan was.
The misery of not getting to the World Cup is compounded by never getting the chance to see one of the country’s most creative players given the spotlight on the grandest stage. Hoolahan did get his moment at a major tournament, his goal against Sweden at Euro 2016 was undoubtedly the highlight of his international career.
Thanks for the memories Wes, in red and green those moments of joy will last me a lifetime. My only regret is that you did not get the chance to give us more.