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Many of those watching events unfold at Carrow Road on Saturday lunchtime would have been wrapped up in the incredulity caused by Cameron Jerome’s incredible miss in the second half.
It was hard to believe how the striker contrived to blaze over when presented with a golden chance with Norwich and Everton locked at 1-1 in the second half and it served to overshadow the sumptuous back-heel from Wes Hoolahan that carved out the opportunity.
Jerome had gloriously wasted the chance to win Norwich all three vital points but Hoolahan had rescued them one, bundling in Ryan Bennett’s header from Robbie Brady’s corner.
It was the Irishman’s second goal of the season and he is revelling in showing how crucial he is in Norwich’s Premier League jaunt.
A regular feature
He has been here before with Norwich of course, a regular feature in their Premier League campaigns of 2011-12 and 2012-13, though the third of those seasons left a sour taste, starting only ten times as he fell to the fringes of Chris Hughton’s squad as the manager ultimately found his way to the sack and Norwich to eventual relegation.
“I believe it is in the best interest of Norwich and myself that I am allowed to move on,” said Hoolahan in the January of that year amidst interest from Aston Villa.
Norwich stood firm however, rejecting a transfer request and reaping the rewards of his resurgence in form in the Championship under new manager Alex Neil. Hoolahan helped himself to 5 goals and 10 assists as the Canaries climbed back into the Premier League via a play-off victory over Middlesbrough.
Neil is an attacking coach by nature but after the heavy 6-2 defeat at Newcastle arrived in the middle of a run of six winless matches he has had to compromise his approach, a new organised counter-attacking style nearly taking a result from Chelsea before holding Arsenal to an entertaining 1-1 draw at Carrow Road.
A luxury player?
Hoolahan, perceived by some as a luxury player who at the age of 33 could be in need of preserving his legs, may have been a casualty in that shift in approach but that hasn’t been the case, the Irish midfielder has started 11 of the 16 games played so far and has missed just three of them.
Neil hasn’t been afraid to drop Hoolahan when it has been required, omitting him from the side that played Liverpool at Anfield a week after his excellent display guided Norwich to a 3-1 win over Sunderland.
“I just felt we needed more legs in those middle areas. I wanted players who could eat up the ground and shut off angles and Wes’ creativity might have become important for us later on in the game”, was Neil’s explanation of the decision to leave him out and the 1-1 draw provided vindication.
Hoolahan also spent the game away at Manchester City on the bench as Neil preferred defensive solidity ahead of the attacking guile and vision provided by the 33 year old and it is clear that he is the make-way man when Neil senses the best way is to shut up shop.
The midfielder also finds himself posing the same dilemma at international level with Martin O’Neill and the Republic of Ireland toying with the option of sticking with more cautious options or twisting with the more offensive Hoolahan throughout the Euro 2016 qualifying campaign which led to the eventual qualification to next summer’s championships in France via a play-off with Bosnia.
O’Neill sprung a surprise in starting the Norwich man in both legs of that tie but it will not be unexpected, with Ireland drawn in a tough group of Sweden, Belgium and Italy, to see Hoolahan take a back-seat role in O’Neill’s squad for France despite his excellent club form as one of the limited number of players he can call from the top-flight.
O’Neill faced accusations that he “didn’t trust” Hoolahan after he was put on the bench for the crucial game in Poland, a match that would have gained the Republic an automatic spot had they won, and the manager’s explanation that the midfielder complained of a soreness in the build-up seemed feeble.
There is an underlying feeling that Hoolahan is too easily sacrificed when a fear of losing the game and the temptation to pack the midfield with ball-winners takes over.
His club manager also takes the pragmatic line when it comes to his midfielder.
“I have to do what I think is the right thing to win the game,” he says, but he will know that the Irishman, so telling was his contribution in coming from behind against Everton to nearly steal victory, that the right thing more often than not will be to have the attacking midfielder in his team.
Leading assist-maker and an effective curator
Hoolahan is Norwich’s leading assist-maker with five and only Robbie Brady with 28 has carved out more chances than the Irishman’s 25.
Of the players who have started seven games or more only Graham Dorrans has a better pass completion rate than Hoolahan’s 85.1% and his average passes per game of 41.8 is bettered only by Alex Tettey.
An effective curator of the ball in the final third and one who can make things happen in dangerous areas, one wonders how potent Norwich could be if Hoolahan had a regular goal-scorer to provide; Nathan Redmond is still the club’s top-scorer with four while Russell Martin, a centre-half is second in line with three.
The 33 year old is often deployed as the attacking midfielder in support of lone-striker Jerome but the ex-Stoke man is not prolific at this level meaning that Hoolahan’s industry, just as it did on Saturday, is often going to waste.
Appreciated and could prove key for The Canaries
His efforts hasn’t been wasted on his manager however who certainly appreciates the qualities Hoolahan brings to his team and is fully aware of the care he needs to invest in the 33 year old.
“Wes has a specialised role but he is not alone in that respect and he has carried his out very, very well,” said Neil. “The way we set-up gets the best out of him but he still has to show his talent and do the bits we know he is good at.”
He is currently doing just that and if he continues he may well help Norwich to stay in the Premier League, in doing so also highlighting that the best way is to have Hoolahan in the side, no matter how much the temptation to avoid defeat.
Written by Adam Gray
Follow Adam on Twitter @AdamGray1250
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