THE news that Wes Hoolahan has retired from international football was greeted with a ridiculous over-reaction last month.
As a nation, we appear to have lost all sense of proportion and context when it comes to sport.
Simply put, Hoolahan possessed an exquisite touch and real vision, qualities absent in so many of his Irish peers that we tended to exaggerate the magnitude of his gifts. However, when successive managers failed to appreciate his abilities, he became a cause celebre and prompted many who should know better to lose their minds.
It is possible to applaud Hoolahan and to lament what he might have achieved if given more opportunities by Giovanni Trapattoi and Martin O’Neill without making fools of ourselves.
One tabloid in Dublin reacted to his retirement by calling him “our Messi!”
There are no words for stupidity on that scale. The utter loss of reality reminded me of another era when serious pundits were wondering if a teenage David Connolly was potentially better than Ronaldo (the Brazilian one).
In the Premier League era, the tendency towards hyperbole is frightening. In the rush to overstate what Hoolahan was and what he could have been, there is a danger of failing to acknowledge the remarkable trajectory of his career.
Fourteen years ago, he was playing with the famous Shelbourne team that reached the qualifying rounds of the Champions’ League proper. He only departed Dublin at 23, and even then it was for the rather unglamorous backwater of Livingston in Scotland.
Why did he go so late? What stopped clubs taking a chance on him a lot sooner?
From the outside looking in, it seems Hoolahan was a victim of the size police and the trend in the professional game to prize athletes over flair players. That was a time when English clubs were actually doing bone density measurements on kids in their academies to predict their eventual height.
Indeed, he was a victim of that culture right throughout his professional life but, and this is where he deserves so much credit, he persevered and kept rising.
From Livingston to Blackpool and, finally, to Norwich and even a stay in the Premier League.
Along the way, at the age of 30, he made his first competitive start for Ireland.
That last bit says much about how we value competitors rather than clever footballers with a trick up their sleeves.
At 35, Hoolahan can play on for as long as he wants at club level. He may have to leave Norwich, he may even return to the League of Ireland he once lit up.
It doesn’t matter. When your game is not based around power and pace but finesse and skill, there is no real age limit.
Wherever he ends up, we can stand back and say he made the most of the chances he did get at every stop. Which, sadly, is not something that can be said about another Irish international in the news over the past month.
In 232 starts in Scottish football, the very stage where Hoolahan made his first British splash, Anthony Stokes has scored 125 and made 77 goals. These are astonishing statistics and they highlight how fed up of his behavior Hibs must have been to cut him loose recently.
Neil Lennon apparently gave him every chance to get himself sorted out yet Stokes rebuffed every one.
The last straw was an incident during the club’s winter break in Portugal, the type of misdemeanour that has trailed him throughout a career that is going to be remembered as one of those stories about what might have been.
Hibs were the second club in recent seasons to look at Stokes and think his talent isn’t worth the baggage that he brings with him. At the age of 30, this is an appalling indictment of his character and a sad commentary about how he wasted his talent.
Stokes was a wunderkind at Arsenal in his teens, one that great things were expected of once he matured.
The last bit is the important bit. Did he ever mature?
He should have played more than nine times for Ireland. He should have endured longer in the Premier League than his brief stay there with Sunderland. He should have done a lot of things that he didn’t because he always appeared easily distracted and prone to mischief of all kinds.
Instead, he is now turning out for Apollon Smyrni, one of the Athenian clubs even those of us who obsess about European football have never heard of.
The type of place you end up when you have a great future behind you.
Which he has.