Belvo Old Boy Wes Hoolahan talks about his time with the Belvo and his journey to the Premier League
WESLEY HOOLAHAN’S phone has been hopping to the tune of congratulations for the past few months. Many friends, family members and former Belvo team-mates have sent messages with a common sentiment. In the nicest way possible, they have suggested that his imminent arrival to the Premier League with Norwich City is an overdue achievement.“I took my time,” says Hoolahan, who recently celebrated his 29th birthday. “But I’ve gotten there eventually. And to think it all started back in Fairview Park with Belvedere when I was only seven.” Wes has happy memories of his days wearing the sky-blue jersey. “I remember my Dad taking me down to Fairview Park,” he says. “I had some great years there. We had a good team, but we didn’t win any trophies up until we were 15. “It’s a great club. My dad’s still friendly with the managers down there and I always enjoy catching up with my old team-mates when I get home.”
Those who worked with the diminutive Dubliner through his education with Belvedere and then Shelbourne never questioned his ability. Instead, the fear was that he would join the list of entertainers who missed out on a taste of the big time because of bad luck, poor personal decisions, or a manager’s reluctance to take a chance. When he started on his League of Ireland journey, talents such as Liam Coyle and Tony Sheridan were approaching the end of their careers with a huge ‘what if’ hanging over their legacy. As players who made less of an impact domestically – Kevin Doyle, Stephen Ward, and Daryl Murphy spring to mind – went on to taste Premier League football, Hoolahan was consigned to the periphery. His exmanagers, such as Pat Fenlon, kept the faith, but wondered if the little trickster would ever get the break. Now, that he’s on the way to the top flight, there’s a sense of relief and satisfaction in equal measure. Similar to Keith Fahey’s ascension, it seems fitting that he should get the chance to line out on the biggest stage. “I saw them all doing it,” reflects Hoolahan, with reference to the other homegrown graduates. “Kevin Doyle, Stephen Ward, Shane Long as well. So I needed to do it for myself, to get the chance to show what I can do.” In some ways, there are parallels to Fahey’s story. After all, the absolute proof that the Birmingham midfielder was too good for the league here came with his starring display in a big European tie against Hertha Berlin. Faced with a formidable opponent, he demonstrated technique and poise that confounded the general public’s perception of a player earning his living on these shores. Think back to 2004, and it was Hoolahan doing just that in a European game of greater significance, strutting around a buzzing Lansdowne Road in Shelbourne’s Champions League qualifier with Deportivo La Coruna – the highlight of his trophyfilled stint with the club.
The difference compared to Fahey – who was in the Premier League within 12 months of his cameo – is that he spent another two years with Shels before emigrating, and then it was to a modest destination in the form of Livingston.
Indeed, Fahey was the boy who had it all in his teens and, by his own admission, wasn’t ready for the task of living away, despite being able to list Arsenal and subsequently Aston Villa as his employers. Hoolahan, on the other hand, never got that chance. They said he was too small to make the leap. He was with Belvedere from the age of
seven, and his comfort on the ball and propensity to embarrass defenders was obvious. But it was the earlier developers who commanded the serious cross channel interest and mopped up the Irish schoolboy caps. ‘Weso’, who grew up in Portland Row in Dublin’s North Inner City, finished his days at Belvo by helping his team – managed by Gerry Smullen and Matt Halpin – collect a quadruple of trophies in 2000. He was a crucial component in that team’s success – so much so that he had his own mini fan club who went to Fairview Park to watch him torment some poor unfortunate. Alas, the English clubs had already been and gone, and cherry-picked lads like Declan Field and Darren Meade who, for varying reasons, failed to make the grade after leaving in their early teens.
One member of that 2000 team – Gavin Bolger – did earn a move to Wimbledon, but injury dashed his ambitions. Hoolahan turned 18 and made his way to Shels. Looking back, he is philosophical enough about the lack of wider
recognition. “It was strange really,” he muses, with regard to missing out on Irish schoolboy caps. “I think I got capped once with the 17s and, after that, there was nothing again until the 21s. “I suppose I was always very small, and I didn’t really fill out until I was older.” Doubts about his stature lingered. When he made his switch to Livingston, some wondered if a shortage of physicality might be an issue. It was mentioned again when he departed for Blackpool. “It was a change alright,” he says, “But, to be honest, I was pretty used to it from the League of Ireland, because there were a lot of physical players there.”A move to Norwich in 2008 screamed potential. Yet it started poorly. He doesn’t want to speak too much about life under Glenn Roeder but they don’t exchange Christmas cards. Relegation to League One was a setback but the arrival of Paul Lambert, who had initially brought Hoolahan to Scotland, gradually instigated a change in his personal fortunes. Back-to-back promotions speaks for itself. Confidence “At the start of the season, we were thinking that a top ten finish would be good after we came up,” he recalls. “But we grew into it. Every week, we kept growing in confidence and all of a sudden we were in with a chance.”
Has he improved as a player? Well, the basic principles remain the same. Just as he thrilled the locals in Fairview Park, he likes to create a buzz for the Carrow Road patrons as well. But he has supplemented the style with substance. “I’ve always liked to get the ball down and pop it around and pass. And I like to entertain the crowd, I always have, with a little trick here and there. But I knew that I had to work harder as well when I didn’t have the ball. It wasn’t something that the manager said to me particularly. I just knew I had to work harder for my team-mates.” The plaudits have followed. Only one box remains unticked; recognition from his country. In the midst of promotion celebrations, the only disappointment was missing out on Giovanni Trapattoni’s selection for the summer internationals. The Italian handed Hoolahan his only senior cap three years ago, in a Craven Cottage friendly against Colombia that followed the training camp which kicked off his regime.
Yet it wasn’t a sign of things to come. “I’d love to get a chance,” he says, “It’s always been a goal of mine. I'll just keep doing what I’ve been doing for the past two or three years.”He chooses the words carefully, but the disillusionment is obvious. The predictable question is if he reckons a move to the Premier League will aid his cause. “Well,” he replies, “There’s a lot of Championship players in there at the moment.” Say no more. Even in this time of happiness, there is a school of scepticism to win over. A familiar battle, but he’ll keep fighting. He’d got wind of Premier League interest before. Sunderland, Birmingham and Middlesbrough all shot admiring glances in the past, yet it came to nothing. Deep down, Hoolahan always felt that his best chance of getting there would be with a promoted club. “I always believed I could get there,” he says.
All he wanted was an opportunity. Thousands more wanted him to get it too. Twenty-two years after the first journey to Fairview Park, he has reached his destiny.