Paddy Davitt: This is the only way to judge Wes Hoolahan
Archant © 2008
Ask yourself this when you reflect on Wes Hoolahan’s immense contribution to Norwich City. How did he make you feel?
What emotions did he stir, how much pleasure did he bring you, watching him trace mesmeric patterns in the green and yellow?
The endless torrent of debate since Monday’s expected announcement of his imminent departure, regarding where he sits in the pantheon at Carrow Road, is essentially irrelevant.
The raw statistics, the appearances, the goals, the promotions and relegations, the occasional missed penalty, all that data simply qualifies the enduring legacy and the longevity you suspect we will never again see in the modern game.
Hoolahan’s genius will endure beyond the dusty pages of the archives.
It is rooted in the emotions he stirred, the impudence of his play and that nerve-ending smile on his face.
The 35-year-old took a circuitous route to the top of his profession.
Maybe that is why his game always retained the essence of the street footballer, who honed his craft for hour after hour, day after day on those Dublin side streets.
Hoolahan only left the League of Ireland at the age of 23. Even then his destination was unheralded Livingston, a struggling club just relegated from the Scottish top flight.
How many times over did he repay a reported £250,000 Norwich dispensed to Blackpool to bring him here in June 2008?
Now, time for a confession.
I was in attendance for Hoolahan’s maiden outing as a Canary a few weeks later.
With a hat tip to Mr Bailey’s detective work, I had the privilege of reporting on his first sighting – an 8-1 pre-season romp at Emerald Park – perhaps a fitting backdrop for the Irishman.
Hoolahan scored the eighth goal but I have no recollection of his debut in that distant and ultimately meaningless friendly.
These were the opening paragraphs of my match report.
‘Wes Hoolahan lit up City’s opening pre-season romp against a game Gorleston outfit at Emerald Park.
‘The former Blackpool man was introduced at the interval, along with fellow summer arrival Sammy Clingan. Hoolahan did enough in his 41-minute cameo to suggest Canaries’ fans might have found a new folk hero to rival the departed Darren Huckerby.
‘The newly-capped Republic of Ireland international notched an impudent eighth for Glenn Roeder’s men, before exiting with a minor strain to warm applause from the 1,300 crowd.’
Not a bad prophesy at all.
Alas, his first season ended in relegation to League One.
Albeit the record books reveal an ankle ligament injury ruled him out of the crucial final seven games.
How different the course of history could have been had Hoolahan been fit to sprinkle his magic dust on a successful survival mission.
We all know the script from that point. The highs and the lows. Which is perhaps why there has been such an outpouring of genuine warmth.
Hoolahan had his flaws. There was a succession of managers he had to win over.
There was that well-publicised flirtation with Aston Villa, but such difficulties were overcome and the marriage endured.
That vulnerability is what endeared him to his adoring public.
Even in the fallow periods his graft, guile and technical excellence always threatened to fashion an improbable piece of brilliance.
Age waits for no-one. His powers had waned in recent times.
The likes of James Maddison or Alex Pritchard before him have assumed the creative mantle.
But a season of cameos under Daniel Farke’s guidance do not dull the excitement of seeing the number 14 darting between the bigger boys, twisting and turning for pockets of space.
Those early-season link ups with Maddison on League Cup duty may have faded from the memory, but ask City’s prized asset just how much Hoolahan helped him to develop during a breakthrough campaign.
Look at the reaction from past team-mates over these last few days.
Hoolahan was a unique footballer, an early prototype for the classy attacking number 10, a midfielder who valued grace and balletic technique over physical exertion. It is tough to speak about Hoolahan and Norwich in the past tense but after this weekend’s swansong against Leeds United there is no other choice.
Hoolahan will be welcomed back for a fitting testimonial in due course.
But all those in attendance on Saturday should savour one last shot of emotional excess; that thrill when he gets the ball and the sense of anticipation they are watching a special operator for the last time with points at stake for the club he is now indelibly linked.