How is it that Wes Hoolahan, at the age of 30, still has only two Republic of Ireland caps to his name? That was the obvious and baffling question after the diminutive Dubliner inspired Norwich City to the victory that lifted them to seventh place in the Premier League, two points off a Champions’ League position.
On the day he signed a new long-term deal with the club, Hoolahan was everywhere, Norwich’s best midfielder, their best attacker and at times their last line of defence; his doggedness created their opening goal, and his Jack-in-the-box spring that brought them the winner.
As the Canaries made it five straight home wins in an unbeaten league run of 10 games, however, their manager Chris Hughton was at pains to play down their lofty position. “Our form has deserved it,” he said, “but for clubs like ourselves, it’s about keeping as big a gap as you can between us and down the bottom. There’s no shame in that. We have to work very hard for the points that we get. We’re showing good quality in a workmanlike side. We won’t get carried away. We know how we have to compete in every game.”
Hoolahan competed, and showed quality. After 15 minutes, he appeared to have lost the ball to Emerson Boyce as he attempted to weave a path through Wigan’s defence; but he battled to retrieve it while on the ground and poked it forward to Anthony Pilkington, who crashed it left-footed into the roof of Ali Al-Habsi’s net.
Norwich should have been further ahead at the break, and would have been but for Al-Habsi’s point-blank save from a Robert Snodgrass header (laid on, naturally, by Hoolahan). Two half-time substitutions gave Wigan new life, however, and one of those, Shaun Maloney, levelled the scores with a scorching shot six minutes after the interval.
Norwich were reduced for a spell to standing like statues while Wigan wove their passing movements around them. But that spell was broken decisively in the 64th minute when Pilkington crossed for Hoolahan to head Norwich back in front.
Al-Habsi made another outstanding save, this time from a Bradley Johnson shot, before pulling off an even better one from Pilkington as Norwich began to turn the screw. But for all their dominance, the hosts still needed an excellent tackle by Sébastien Bassong to prevent Arouna Koné from plundering an injury-time equaliser. “We’d have been kicking ourselves if that had gone in,” said Hughton.
The Wigan manager, Roberto Martinez, described his side’s defeat as “self-inflicted” but also claimed that “on the balance of play, we deserved something for our second-half efforts”.
The difference, he believed, was that Norwich defended their six-yard box better – partly because “we have four senior centre-halves out injured, and it showed”. That tally rose in the last minute when Adrian Lopez was carried off with a hamstring injury. The Latics also lost their midfielder James McCarthy to an ankle injury caused by what Martinez called “a really nasty challenge” by Johnson. McCarthy will have a scan today to determine the extent of the damage but could miss two or three games.
Norwich (4-4-1-1): Bunn; Whittaker, Turner, Bassong, Garrido; Snodgrass, Johnson, Tettey, Pilkington; Hoolahan (Howson, 84); Holt (Morison, 90).
Wigan (3-4-3): Al-Habsi; Boyce, Lopez, Figueroa; Stam, McArthur, McCarthy (Jones, 46), Beausejour; Koné, Gomez (Maloney, 46), Boselli (Di Santo, 72).
Referee: Lee Probert
Man of the match: Hoolahan (Norwich)
Match rating: 7/10