Rovers were under the cosh. Shels were all over them and pushing them further and further back, trying desperately to get the opening goal. Wes picked the ball up on the right wing in front of Section B. Cutting inside, he reached the corner of the penalty area, with a mass of green and white bodies between himself and the goal. Shaping to shoot left-footed, three Rovers defenders made a desperate lunge to block the ball. As they dived in, Wes cut the ball back and headed for the goal-line. It was the most sublime dummy seen at Tolka for many a year. In an instant, the green and white defence had collapsed, and Wes was through on goal. As the keeper came out, Wes shot low to his left, but somehow O’Dowd got a hand to it and kept it out.
And there, in one of my highlights of last season, is the essential nub of the enigma that is Wesley Houlihan. Incredibly audacious skill that is worth the entrance fee alone. Brilliance not seen on a regular basis in the eircom League since Shero in his prime or Liam O’Brien at Rovers. Yet on the other hand, ultimately, what worth is he to the team? Does his wonderful skill win games for the Reds, or is it more of a showcase of his talents, an entertainment?
I am acutely aware that Wes is worshipped by many of the Tolka Park faithful. That they see a fantastic future for him, probably across the water, and in the green shirt of Ireland. That we shouldn’t sell him for less than a million. However, I am going to recommend that we sell him now, for as much as we can get for him, and if that’s only £100,000 so be it.
Keely, whatever his faults, had a brain in his head. He gave Wes his start at Shels, slowly introducing him as a sub. He recognised that such a raw talent needed to be nurtured. Eventually he made his full debut. The crowd was shouting “Wesley for Ireland.” People started to talk about him. And then, all of a sudden, Keely dropped him. Kept him out of the team for a few weeks. His explanation was that Wes was starting to believe in his own reputation. No better man than Keely for shrinking a swollen head!
Just before the end of last season, Wes did an interview with an Internet magazine. He claimed that it was rather frustrating still being at Shels. A number of clubs in England had expressed an interest in him but none had come up with a firm offer. He was not interested in going to the lower leagues in England – it had to be the Premier or First Division in England or the Scottish Premier. In any case, he hoped his career at Shels was nearly over.
I have no reason to doubt the authenticity of the interview. The incident with Keely served to indicate that perhaps Wes’ attitude had a serious flaw. I have to admit I was astounded at the “self-belief” of the interviewee, but even more surprised that it elicited no response from Shels fans.
Personally, despite his skill, if Wes doesn’t want to play for us, I don’t want to see him play. If he has no affinity for the club and is merely using us as a stepping-stone to future greatness, then sod him. Get rid quickly.
In spite of his undoubted skill, Wes is far from being the complete player he seems to think he is. Too often last season, he’d beat two, three, four players and then lose the ball to the fifth. Too many times, like in the example against Rovers above, a defence splitting dribble was spoiled by a tame, easily-saved shot. Of course, I recognise that you have to give genius a free hand, but if the team doesn’t benefit, what is the point?
If Wes stays at Shels, there are a number of ways his career might go. He might continue to produce the brilliance that has enthralled the Tolka faithful for two seasons. He might learn to score goals – the only goal he scored last season was against Rockmount in the Cup – and might become one of the greatest players never to have crossed the pond.
Alternatively – and there were signs of this at the end of last season – his star might not shine so brightly in the future. Soccer is littered with players who failed to live up to their early promise. Defenders start to get a handle on the shimmies and feints. Particularly next season, when we have to play every team four times, the element of surprise will soon be gone from his play. One of his favourite ploys – trapping the ball and dragging it around 180 degrees all in one movement – was not working towards the end of the season as often as it was in the beginning.
When Richie Baker was young, rumours were rife of an imminent cross-channel move. They never materialised, and Richie stayed with Shels. Though I maintain he is still a very important player, the brilliance that marked his early appearances has gone. And I fear very much that the same might happen with Wes. I don’t think English clubs will come in for him because of his height. Which is nonsensical, but probably true. And he’ll stay, but will never really fulfill the promise shown in his early career.
Another alternative is that he might stay with Shels, and some frustrated defender, annoyed at being made to look a fool, will put him out of action permanently. For some reason, big, hulking defenders seem to go in harder on slighter players, than they do on people their own size. Keegan used to get much more stick than Toshack, for example. So far, Wes has escaped serious injury, but it only takes one muppet, like the Derry left-back last year, to come lunging in and put him out of the game for a long time. And though it shows what a heartless bastard I am, I’d prefer it happened after we’d been paid handsomely for him.
To summarise therefore, I think we should sell Wes as soon as a decent offer comes in for him. Rovers jumped at the chance to sell Hunt to Dunfermline, and whereas we’re not as badly off financially as Rovers, a hundred thousand would be worth three Jason Byrnes. If we hang on to him, or hold out for half a million, I feel we run the real risk that his performances have already peaked and we’ll end up with an average player and no money. But, most importantly, if he wants away, then we should be actively looking to offload him. Wish him luck, thank him, and cash in our chips.