Lionel Wessi: Ireland’s version of the Barcelona superstar

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Wes Hoolahan Ireland Euro 2016
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The diminutive left-footer is the toast of the Emerald Isle after his stunning strike against Sweden and will now be dreaming of making a similar impact in a pivotal Euro 2016 Group E clash with Belgium

In the lead-up to Euro 2012, Wes Hoolahan was asked about his prospects of being included in the Republic of Ireland's travelling party. The diminutive playmaker had been capped just once by his country, four years previously, yet he insisted: "I haven't given up. You should never stop dreaming." Because sometimes dreams come true.

Hoolahan has always believed as much. Indeed, on the eve of every match, he lies in bed and visualises the challenge awaiting him. He plays the game out in his head. He drifts off dreaming of playing a killer ball or scoring a vital goal...

On Monday afternoon in Paris, Hoolahan announced himself to the global footballing community at the age of 34. With less than three minutes of the second half of Ireland's Euro 2016 opener gone, Seamus Coleman bore a hole in the left-hand side of the Sweden defence before lifting the ball into the area. It dropped invitingly for Hoolahan, who demonstrated flawless technique in sending an emphatic, first-time half-volley flying past Andreas Isaksson and into the bottom right-corner of the net.

The sweet strike ultimately only proved sufficient to earn the Irish a point but it was a magical moment for Hoolahan, a player forced to take the road less travelled by ever since he was a prodigiously gifted teenager honing his skills on the streets of the northside of Dublin.

From the age of nine, he had represented Belvedere F.C., a club renowned for producing players of rare quality (11 of its alumni have gone on to represent Ireland at senior level), yet he was continually overlooked by national team coaches at schoolboy level because he was considered too small to survive at the highest level. Growth hormones were never an option in Hoolahan's case. As a result, while his less naturally gifted team-mates were being picked up by English clubs, Hoolahan was being continually rejected... By Sunderland.... By Millwall... By Ipswich. And so on.

The winger's talent was there for all to see yet doubts remained over his fragile phyisque. He eventually ended up at Shelbourne, where he won three successive League of Ireland titles. However, it was his performance in the Dubliners’ Champions League qualifier against Deportivo La Coruna in 2004 that underlined that Hoolahan was a special but terribly under-appreciated talent.

Despite turning in an incredible display in the scoreless first leg at Lansdowne Road, Hoolahan would remain at Shelbourne for another two years before former Scotland international Paul Lambert took him to Livingston. The Irishman endured a tough time in Scotland – Lambert’s resignation a month after his arrival hardly helped – and he was promptly moved on to Blackpool.

His fine form at Bloomfield Road eventually led to transfer to Norwich City in 2008 and was at Carrow Road that Hoolahan was finally given the freedom he had long craved by a familiar face, Lambert, who took charge of the Canaries the following year. The former midfield ace was taken by Hoolahan's wonderful ability to work within the most confined of spaces and thus moved him infield. Hoolahan, shorn of any defensive responsibilities, flourished in the trequartista role.

However, he was continually ignored by Ireland boss Trapattoni. The legendary Italian coach saw no place in his pragmatic, hard-working side for a perceived lightweight more concerned with creating than destroying. As far as 'Trap' was concerned, the benefits of including such a 'luxury player' such as Hoolahan were outweighed by the negatives.

As such, despite mounting public support for his inclusion, Hoolahan remained in the international wilderness until 2013, when he was belatedly welcomed into Trapattoni’s struggling squad. However, it was only after Martin O'Neill took over as manager in November of the same year that O'Hoolahan's prospects improved.

“Maybe some managers have not trusted me enough to play me, but I have found that trust under the current manager and I just try and do my best for my country every time I play,” the attacking midfielder explained.

Even under O'Neill, there were doubts, questions as to whether he could really be relied upon in away games, when Irish backs were against the wall. Consequently, he was left out of the starting line-up for the trips to Georgia and Germany. However, O'Neill belatedly became a believer and Hoolahan started Ireland's Euro 2016 opener against the Swedes.

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His goal was merely the highlight in a fantastic all-round display that earned him the man of the match award. Indeed, his performance earned rave reviews from around Europe, while the Irish public revelled in the acclaim now coming the way of their answer to Lionel Messi - 'Wessi', as he is known, has already had a song dedicated to him (it goes to the tune of 'Go West' by the Pet Shop Boys!).

The man himself has been reluctant to hog any of the limelight, even sheepishly dodging the media after the game in Paris. That was hardly surprising. Hoolahan had clearly already started thinking about the next game and how he could maybe decide a pivotal meeting with Belgium in Bordeaux in Ireland's favour. As he says himself, you should never stop dreaming.

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