Wesley HoolahanBy Philip Quinn
EDGAR DEGAS, the acclaimed French painter, once observed that "everyone has talent at 25. The difficulty is to have it at 50."
Where the Republic of Ireland is concerned, players don't have to wait until 25 to be recognised as special talents. If they're good enough, they're old enough.
Under the careful tutelage of Vinny Butler, Brian Kerr and Don Givens, who oversee Ireland's teams from U-14 level through to U-21s, by the time most players receive the keys of the house on their 21st birthday, the pick of the emerging crop are ready for the demands of the senior arena.
As Ireland struggles in the 2004 European Championship qualifiers, many observers are looking beyond to the 2006 World Cup campaign and towards the players that could emerge to form the backbone of a new-look team. One such player is Wesley Hoolahan.
No one denies that wingers are a dying breed in world football. These days, teams prefer wide midfielders who can track up and down the flanks, work-horses rather than wing wizards. Yet, for over half a century, Irish teams were graced by wingers, from Tommy Eglinton and Arthur Fitzsimons to Joe Haverty and Frank O'Neill, from Terry Conroy and Steve Heighway to Kevin O'Callaghan and Tony Galvin.
Alarmingly, the wizards of the dribble and dipping shoulder dried up only for Damien Duff to emerge and rekindle one's faith in the sport, even if he's played over a third of his games at full international level in attack. To have one winger in the team again is a blessing and soon there could be room for a second ... our very own `Wes.'
Wesley has been a shining light in a grey autumn for the Irish U-21s this year. Still only 19, he set up the winner in the friendly against Finland in August and was one of the few players to emerge with kudos from the Euro qualifying defeats by Russia and Switzerland.
In only his second season at Shelbourne, Hoolahan has stayed on his feet and made his mark in a League where defenders are not known for politeness, especially when confronted with players of his slight build and sleight of foot.
Wesley's name among the first to be pencilled in on the Irish U-21 team-sheet by manager Don Givens, who believes that Premiership managers will soon come knocking on the door of Tolka Park with inquiries for the wing wizard's talents.
"Wesley would be lost in the lower divisions were teams kick lumps out of one another. In the Premier League, the more skilful players are protected and he could prosper there," said Givens who underlined his faith in Wes by including him in the squad for the senior friendly international against Greece.
Everyone at Belvedere was hoping that Wes would get a run and so become the club's fourth full international by following in the footsteps of Curtis Fleming, Mark Kennedy and Thomas Butler and Richard Sadlier.
Sadly, he was left kicking his heels on the subs' bench but Givens has no doubts that Wesley's time will come. "He's got outstanding ability, beats defenders by skill as much as speed and he's got a great engine for a little fellow. He can play left or right and is willing to learn.
"Wesley was kicking a football around Fairview Park from the day that he was old enough to walk and soon he was going along to training sessions with his older brother, Robert. Eventually he got his first game for Fergus McCabe's U-8s and a star was born.
But, while, even then, it was clear that Wesley was a special player, he didn't enjoy much success during his early days at Belvedere. His team, now under Gerry Fitzgerald, was almost relegated at U-10 and winning trophies repeated proved a bridge too far.
All the time, though, Wesley was emerging as a class act ... so much so that he soon had his very own fan club, made up of schoolboy football fans who followed that Belvedere team around the city just to see him play. And they were rarely disappointed as, week in, week out, Wes left defenders trailing his wake.
Remarkably, he failed to win any international recognition as schoolboys' level. "The people in charge of the Irish teams always said that I was too small," he reflected.
" Wes and his team-mates finally came good at U-16 when they won the double and they followed that up by winning the quadruple of League, League Cup, FAI U-17 Cup and Leinster Youths Cup the following season.
That year also brought long overdue international recognition as Brian Kerr selected Wes for an U-17 match against France in Baldonnel. "It was a fantastic experience," he said. "It was great to be playing with so many good players against such a good team. And, without being big-headed, I didn't find it difficult to make the step-up."
Not surprisingly, Wes made a big impression and shortly afterwards went to Italy to play for Ireland in an international tournament.
After another successful season at U-18, eircom League clubs were queueing up to sign Wes and Shelbourne knew that they had secured a gem when he opted for the Reds. If Wes was worried about having to bide his time in the U-21s, he needn't have worried. He made his first team debut when he came on against Bray Wanderers and marked his full debut the following week with a goal in a 2-1 win over Cork City. Next came the call to train with the Irish U-21s. "Don Givens said that he liked me as a player and put me on stand-by for the trip to Finland," recalled Wes. "Then Andy Reid had to pull out because he was injured and I got called up".
"I was hoping to get on for a few minutes but Don included me in the team from the start. I couldn't believe it. My only regret was that the match was away from home and that my da wasn't there. He's been go all of my matches since I was six."
As if it wasn't enough to have won his first U-21 cap, Wes made the goal in a man of the match performance as Ireland won 1-0. Another chapter in this `Roy of the Rovers'-style story unfolded when Wes was included in the squad for the European U-21 Championship qualifiers against Russia in Moscow and Switzerland in Kilkenny. Ireland lost both but Wes could take consolation from another couple of splendid performances and he also made his mark in the practice matches against the senior team.
So what's next for Belvo's wizard of the wing? "I'm full time at Shels and I love it there but my ambition is to sign for an English team," he said. "I really want to play at a higher level. Being picked for the full international against Greece has made me even more determined. It was fantastic to be involved."
Whatever the future holds for Wes, he won't forget his days at the Belvo or the people who have helped him get where is today. "Everyone at Belvo helped me so much and I also owe an awful lot to my Ma (Ann) and my Da (Robbie)," said Wes, who was educated at Colasite Mhuire. "I was a bit of messer when I was a younger. I could easily have gone off the rails but they made sure that I didn't.
"During my days at Belvo I saw some players with great potential waste it because they didn't have the right attitude. "I'm not saying that I was an angel ... there was the odd Saturday night that I was out later than I should have been and maybe having a drink ... but generally I put football first. You have to do that if you are to any chance of making it."
And his most cherished memories from his days as one of the Boys in Blue? "From a football point of view it has to be the U-17 season when we won the quadruple. And I'll always remember the hat-trick I scored in the semi-final of the All...Ireland against a team from Mayo (Foxford United). "It was a real hat-trick. I scored one with my left foot, one with my right foot and one with my head."
The best player he played with in Belvedere? "It has to be Declan Field. He was a fantastic player ... he had loads of skill. I was really disappointed that things didn't work out for him at Arsenal. "The other thing I'll always remember is the pre-season training trips to Mosney. They were great craic on and off the pitch ... especially Shakers disco when we managed to sneak in there."
Soothsaying in soccer is a risky business but `Weso' is undoubtedly one of the brightest prospects around. He's young, gifted and green, with more than a little sky blue blood in his veins.