I don’t even know where to start with that. I’ve used every superlative I can think of, but they’re still not enough. Magnificent, wonderful, incredible – none of these come close to even describing the magic perpetrated by Wesley Patrick Hoolahan on the Abbey turf every other Saturday.
Where do I begin then? Let’s look at the line-up. Jack Iredale kept his place at left back, and of course he would after two goals against Oldham he offers a creative outlet going forward that complements Kyle Knoyle on the opposite flank perfectly. The other defensive change saw Jubril Okedina return to the starting XI in place of Declan Drysdale. Bonner had a full-strength midfield to pick from and went with Digby, Boateng, O’Neil and the aforementioned Hoolahan in his diamond formation. Up front, it was only going to be Paul Mullin and Joe Ironside.
This game was as much of a six-pointer as anything can be, FGR level on points with the U’s, one place behind them in the table but with two games in hand. They may still overtake the U’s as they play catch up, but a win would make it that little bit harder for them. For the U’s, three points was necessary to keep pressure on Cheltenham, and to try and put space between us and the chasing pack.
To be honest, United were in complete control from minute one – keeping the lions share of the possession and frustrating FGR’s attempts to play out from the back by leaving three men on the edge of the area at goal kicks, forcing their keeper into a long punt upfield. When in possession the ball nearly always found it’s way to Wes Hoolahan, who set up Kyle Knoyle for an early chance that went wide.
It was Hoolahan again who created United’s first real chance of the game, after being fouled he got up and quickly took the free-kick to send Mullin racing into the area, who went down under a clumsy challenge from Baily Cargill. There was only going to be one choice for the penalty, Paul Mullin looking to beat David Crown’s record of 24 League goals in a season, but his well struck penalty was at just the right height for the keeper to pull off an impressive save.
Undeterred, United continue to put pressure on FGR and it eventually paid off when on thirty eight minutes a great team goal combining Jack Iredale, Wes, a tenacious Liam O’Neil, Iredale again and then Wes for a last time shooting low through a crowded area to give the U’s a deserved lead. It’s worth watching the goal again, from the second angle provided by the club, to see how quick Wes reacts to the opportunity, almost nicking the ball off the toes of O’Neil, who himself fights doggedly to regain possession of the ball and get it out to Iredale to set up a second attack.
The second half saw FGR make a couple of changes, and shift their shape to try and get something from the game, but United adapted superbly to nullify the change. Twenty minutes later Rovers manager introduced two more players to again attempt to alter the game, but once more United were wise to it, bringing on Hannant for O’Neil and later Tracey and Adam May for Boateng and Ironside. FGR were frustrated, whatever they tried just couldn’t break down a resolute United who moved the ball around and mopped up any chances before they became too dangerous. Even a fifth change for FGR couldn’t bring the goal they needed and United held on for a huge three points.
So, it was all about Wes then? Not quite – Hiram Boateng was back to his best alongside Hoolahan in midfield, and Paul Digby did the dirty work at the base of the diamond. Up front Ironside finished with a shirt that would stretch the length of Newmarket Road, pulled so much by the Rovers defenders and Mullin selflessly worked hard for the team despite the disappointment of the penalty miss. But we’ve not mentioned the centre back pairing of Greg Taylor and Jubril Okedina who deserve just as much praise as Wes. We had doubts about Okedina but he showed his class today after a few games out of the team. He brings something a bit different to Drysdale, with slightly more composure going forwards whilst still appearing solid and confident on the ball.
But really, as much as yesterday was a brilliant team performance, the difference is Hoolahan. It’s like going into the Football Manager editor before a game and sticking an international class midfielder into your League Two team. It takes the piss how good he is, and regardless of what happens this season he’s been an absolute joy to watch. But as well as his individual class, look how he’s raised the team around him. Would Mullin be anywhere close to 24 goals without Wes’ creativity? Would Hannant and Iredale have the confidence to play with the freedom they do knowing Wes is there ahead of them? He’s even making Liam O’Neil look like Xavi, which is possibly even more of an achievement than getting Norwich promoted three times (we joke…). We’re lucky to have him.
Man of the Match: On the off-chance you’ve not read any of the rest of the report and just skipped to the MOTM section, it’s Wes Hoolahan. Of course it’s Wes Hoolahan. Highly commended shout outs go to Hiram Boateng, Joe Ironside and Greg Taylor & Jubril Okedina
Soundtrack of the Match: Ragga Twins – Hooligan 69
United: Burton, Knoyle, Okedina, Taylor, Iredale, Digby, Boateng (May), O’Neil (Hannant), Hoolahan, Ironside (Tracey) Mullin