As a ‘Wes-tamonial’ surely looms into sight to round off the career of a player who is universally revered both at home and abroad, Nick Hayhoe pays tribute to Mr Wes Hoolahan.
I walk out of Copper Face Jacks in a way only one can walk out of a nightclub at 3am. Stumbling. Disorientated. The ‘woosh’ as the doors close on a wall of thumping make me feel as though I have been teleported between two worlds. The cacophony of noise and sea of bodies have given way to a strange world of sodium lighting, garlic sauce smell and taxi engines roaring. Shouts across the street puncture the relative silence: Stag parties walking the wrong way back to the hotel. Students trying to round up fragmented parts of their platoon who have been separated. Emergency sirens wail in the distance. Every single person in the world seems to be drunk.
It is raining. Unlike the rain-shadowed East Anglian drizzle I am used to, this is hard Irish rain; swept from the Atlantic 200 miles to the west, and dumped in one go as if in an attempt to drench and sober us all. Lights reflect in the pavements and on the road. Faces shine, hair drips and faces are mottled with running makeup. A hand slaps me on the back, and I notice that my inexpensive Topman (or was it H&M?) shirt is already soaked. Gradually, remnants of my group pull into focus as though they are drifting out of the fog.
Not all of them appear; but enough. Just enough to have an excuse of getting out of here and to the sanctuary of bed, where nausea can be alleviated and aching muscles can be rested. Someone hails a taxi and we all bundle into it, savouring the dryness, artificial heat and musty taxi-smell. We start on our way, and night-time Dublin passes me by behind fogged up windows - a blur of artificial light and raindrops.
My friend in the front passenger seat is talking with the driver. The conversation, between southern English accent and Dublin Irish, sounds melodic behind the tinnitus in my ears.
“How you guys finding Dublin?”
“Brilliant. Loving it.”
“Where youse all from?”
“East Anglia. Suffolk specifically.”
“Ahh...you guys all support Ipswich Town then?”
“Well, actually he supports Norwich.”
My friend nods back towards me, and I roll my eyes internally. When you support a middle-ranking team, these conversations abroad can take on a slightly awkward quality. “Norwich?” (as the response often goes), “oh yes I remember seeing United thrash them once” or “oh Delia Smith’s team!” Sometimes the “oh I don’t think I have heard of them” happens (though clearly not in this case, I think, if the cabby has heard of the other lot).
“Is that so?”
I trot out the typical self-effacing line, familiar to all supporters of clubs that do not have shadowy billionaires lurking in the background “Yes, unfortunately!” (or maybe it was “yes, for my sins?” - either line is acceptable in such circumstances).
“We love the Norwich here. Wes Hoolahan. He’s one of ours.”
The line takes me aback for a moment, as though I had forgotten myself and fluffed my lines. I admonish myself for assuming that this person was like anyone else who had barely heard of us. Of course they love the Norwich in Dublin for Wes Hoolahan. Why wouldn’t they?
“Ah yes!” I say, as static comes over the taxi’s radio and laughter echoes outside. There’s a pause as I want to say something further. Something more thoughtful, more enlightening. An exclamation mark to cement this new found friendship. But several pints of Guinness and measures of Bushmills stop these words from ever arriving, and all I can do is slump back into my seat, thinking of nothing but the little Irish wizard in midfield, the rest of the journey a drunken haze.
Wesley Hoolahan is not loved by Norfolkites and Irish alike just because he is a footballer. I mean he is an exceptional footballer; but that is not the main reason why we love him. This romance runs far deeper.
Footballers aren't hobbyists anymore, they do not play for the sake of it. It is a career. And like any career, they want to be as successful as possible. This is a side-effect of where the businessification of football has got us. With only a few teams with chances of genuine success, the rest of us are simply treated as 2nd, 3rd or 4th level rungs on a career ladder. It’s difficult to get excited when, before our very eyes, all teams at our level suddenly became full of what used to be called journeymen. The talent of the Nathan Redmonds and Alex Pritchards comes and, after a breakout season or two, off it goes to a higher club. You can’t blame them. It is their career. You (generally) have no ill will towards them as players for doing so. It’s just an unfortunate fact of modern football.1
Wes Hoolahan, though, is an example of something that has generally fallen away through the commercialisation of modern football, but still remains a part of football’s brilliance. There is no real word to describe it. Some would use the term “cult hero”, others “club legend”; but neither of these really describe what Wes Hoolahan means to us. I mean he is a club legend, don’t get me wrong. But the term doesn’t quite fit the majestic regard of which we hold him. He is simply ‘there’. A part of the furniture, a part of Norwich City who has seen the club go through various cycles and up and down various leagues. Players, staff and managers have all changed, with a Trigger’s Broom style of restructuring, and yet, like the only other constant at the club - us supporters - he is still there, pinging the ball around midfield and dictating the pace of play on a cold winter’s afternoon away at Barnsley. He’s loved as much a part of the Norfolk landscape as Banham Zoo or the rattle of the Great Yarmouth Pleasure Beach snail ride. A Norwich squad with Wes in the line-up is a comfort like a hot bubble bath or an old war film on a wet Sunday afternoon. The feeling that whatever is going on in the world, everything will be ok.
Football clubs like Norwich City need these types of players. As we do not win cups, trophies or championships, for a player to become ‘one of us’ like this is something to cherish as a badge of honour. We have almost come to forget what it means. As players have become mercenaries, to know that one will still hold your club’s banner, no matter what, when you enter the battle is a joyous feeling, and is part of the very reason why we love football in the first place.
This is why I will always remember that conversation with the taxi driver in Dublin. He knew and loved a part of my football club as much as I did.
While we had the slight wobble with the 2014 transfer request, for a player of Hoolahan’s quality to have played over 300 games for a mid-ranking team in this era of free contract is special. But for a player of Hoolahan’s quality to be in a photo wearing an inflatable rubber ring during club promotion celebrations, and stay with with the club up and down three different divisions, is the stuff that makes you a part of us. As he slammed home that goal against Sweden at Euro 2016, living rooms in a small corner of south-east England were celebrating as loudly as anyone across the Irish Sea.
So thank you Wesley Hoolahan.
For always being there.
1 As an aside - even though we are supposed to be used to players coming and going like this and all adult about it - this is still hard, and even perhaps impossible, for most of us to accept as fans. One of the main reasons for this is that, to most of us, it is utterly bizarre that anyone would want to play for a team other than the one they support. If some sort of miracle had occured when I was 12, and I suddenly discovered Billy’s Boots in the loft, I couldn’t even think of any scenario where I would want to play for any professional team other than Norwich City. The concept of doing so is completely ludicrous. Often, during those brash excessive days of peak transfer window at either ends of the year, we hear the words ‘boyhood club’ bandied around. But what is a boyhood club? No one else other than a football player has a boyhood club. For supporters, we are have our clubs and that’s it. There is no boyhood, or otherwise about it. It’s a life sentence.