Anything’s possible for Norwich City with Wes Hoolahan on song
Wes Hoolahan may need to get back around the negotiating table. Norwich City appear to have re-signed the complete midfielder on the fresh evidence of the Dubliner's masterful Premier League display that helped to sink Wigan.
The 30-year-old is the glue that binds; the missing link in the Norwich ranks propelling Chris Hughton's squad into orbit. When Hoolahan plays, Norwich always have a chance; when he stars, Norwich take some stopping.
City's rise from the wreck of Championship relegation feeds the popular myth this Canaries' vintage is drawn from humble stock. An amalgam of lower league recruits whose achievements promote the cult of the outsider fighting against-the-odds. That may be true up to a point, but Hoolahan would not look out of place amongst any of the Premier League aristocracy.
Arsenal's Spanish World Cup winner Santi Cazorla arrived at Carrow Road earlier this season with the burgeoning reputation to match the price tag. Yet Hoolahan overshadowed him in front of his watching international boss Giovanni Trapattoni. The Italian's assistant, Marco Tardelli, was in attendance for the latest instalment in Hoolahan's Premier League story.
Norwich's collective will always hold the key to the club's league fortunes – but the Irishman right now is the conductor of the orchestra; a gifted footballer who plays with the freedom of a child in the playground.
The contract extension officially announced prior to kick-off that keeps him in these parts until at least 2015 offers the midfielder and his family financial security in the short-term, but Hoolahan is driven by a love of the game. That much is obvious by his all-consuming desire for constant involvement.
Countless times in the first period when City pinned Wigan back inside their own half it was Hoolahan who demanded the ball in tight, confined pockets of space between the Latics' defensive midfielders and their hesitant back three.
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Alex Tettey and Bradley Johnson looked for the Irishman at the earliest opportunity with those short slide- rule bursts into his talented feet. Hoolahan did the rest. The Republic of Ireland international does not just have a picture in his head; he has a whole gallery to choose from. It takes a certain kind of bravery to accept that responsibility but Hoolahan was doing the same in League One where muscular intent was the dominant currency.
The Premier League is a fitting stage for his skills. The former Livingston and Blackpool playmaker never just passes the ball, he lends it to team-mates and offers an angle for the instant return. Hoolahan was mesmeric before the interval, every party piece on display; the peripheral vision, the sure control, the body swerve – all wrapped up in his first meaningful contribution with a pivot on half-way that embarrassed international colleague James McCarthy before a lift over the top for Anthony Pilkington in one blurring motion.
His second brought the opening goal. Wigan closed ranks to smother an initial Hoolahan run, but Emmerson Boyce's indecision enticed the Irishman to launch himself into a block tackle which seamlessly merged into a simple roll for Pilkington to lash past Ali Al Habsi. Given the Omani's obduracy it was going to take something special. Norwich have it in their ranks. And his name is Hoolahan.
Pilkington turned to the Barclay for adulation. Hoolahan turned back towards his own bench with both fists clenched – as if he derived as much pleasure from winning the rarest of biting challenges.
Irrefutable proof this was Hoolahan's day came after Shaun Maloney had drilled Wigan level shortly after the interval. Pilkington danced past Boyce tight to the byline before standing up a cross and Hoolahan headed powerfully past Al Habsi. Real-time viewing simply did not do justice to the anticipation, the sense of timing and the athletic execution as the diminutive Dubliner rose between Ronnie Stam and Maynor Figueroa. Perhaps it needed something out of the ordinary on an afternoon when Al Habsi was auditioning for the defiant hero role.
Robert Snodgrass was denied with a wrong-footing header that evoked memories of Brad Friedel's parry from the Scot at White Hart Lane. Pilkington and Grant Holt both spurned sharp close-range chances either side of the interval that hinted at a day of mounting frustration for the Canaries.
Then once Hoolahan had punctured Al Habsi's resistance, the Wigan keeper foiled Pilkington with a breathtaking reaction stop to claw away the midfielder's left-footer from barely 10 yards.
Roberto Martinez always appears a class act from afar, but his post-match assertion the visitors' second half display merited tangible reward was a gross over-simplification. Al Habsi did not deserve to be on the losing side, but on the balance of play and clear-cut chances created Wigan fell well short. Maloney's opportunistic finish from the edge of the area did not herald an onslaught.
The anxiety amongst the majority inside Carrow Road was induced by City's failure to create sufficient breathing space in a game where they were the dominant force. Wigan inevitably pressed in the closing stages, but Mark Bunn remained largely redundant. In part due to Sebastien Bassong's ability to sense danger when he expertly foiled Arouna Kone in stoppage time after Franco Di Santo's backheel had deceived Michael Turner.
His centre back partner was the first home player to haul Bassong to his feet in the aftermath; less a last-ditch saving intervention, more an illustration of why Norwich's unbeaten surge continues to dispel those dark early-season clouds.
When Norwich's players have needed back-up, it has been there. Whether it was Bassong helping out Turner here, or Snodgrass and Pilkington dimming their attacking instincts in favour of defensive cover to thwart Manchester United in that memorable Carrow Road win or Javier Garrido kicking Adam Johnson's goalbound strike off his own line against Sunderland or even in Holt's desire to shoulder a huge workload in a lone front-running role that has clearly eroded his goalscoring potential.
Norwich's enduring success in the Premier League over recent weeks is built on a rock-solid team ethic which Hughton and his coaching staff inherited in the summer and have since embellished. It comes from the core of a group who have travelled every step on the long march, allied to a cabal of astute signings who have bought into the Norwich City story.
But Hoolahan is the garnish. The one luxury item Norwich can ill afford to do without.