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We've been missing our little magician

PUBLISHED: 14:23 14 April 2010 | UPDATED: 09:42 02 July 2010

David Cuffley

You don't know what you've got till it's gone, according to the song.

In this case it's not the Big Yellow Taxi but the little yellow Canary that comes to mind.

You don't know what you've got till it's gone, according to the song.

In this case it's not the Big Yellow Taxi but the little yellow Canary that comes to mind.

Wes Hoolahan has been missing from the Norwich City line-up for the past three matches and with him has gone a lot of the guile and mischief and artistry that has helped make the League One leaders a joy to watch for most of the season.

Hoolahan was absent as the Canaries took on relegation-threatened Leyton Orient at the Matchroom Stadium last night, bad timing as it coincided with the start of a two-match ban for skipper and top scorer Grant Holt.

Without two of their regular, hugely successful front three, City lacked the cutting edge to trouble the Os for long periods and they will go to Charlton with a similar problem unless the Irishman makes a surprise reappearance.

The extent of Hoolahan's thigh injury has been a matter of some conjecture given the lack of detail in fitness bulletins from Colney.

Contrary to message board rumours that the Irishman would be out for the rest of the season, manager Paul Lambert insisted on Friday that the problem was "just a strain" but his post-match assessment on Saturday of the player's chances of facing Orient as "possible doubtful" shed no further light on the likely length of his absence. After last night's 2-1 defeat, Lambert was again unable to predict when Hoolahan would return.

"I have to wait and see how he's going to be. The medical people will look at it him and we'll see how he is," he said.

Last season, Hoolahan missed the final seven matches of City's Championship campaign after suffering ankle ligament damage in the 1-0 home win over Plymouth.

They took just four points from those last seven games.

There is no reason to fear a similar collapse this time - City already have four points from the three games he has missed - but one would like to think he would at least be in the running for the Gillingham match at Carrow Road in 10 days' time.

Watching Hoolahan over the past eight months has been a bit like putting one of those old 1960s highlights videos into the machine - like a throwback to the black and white era.

I was too young to have seen Jimmy Hill, FA Cup giant-killer and promotion winner of 50 years ago, play for the Canaries but one diehard fan once told me he regarded Hill as a genius, a player who looked as if the ball was on a string attached to his foot.

Similar tributes were paid to Bobby Brennan, the other Irishman in that legendary side.

I do recall watching Tommy Bryceland - like Lambert, a Scottish Cup winner with St Mirren - towards the end of his Norwich career and there is some surviving Match of the Week footage of the Scottish inside-forward in his pomp.

There is something in Hoolahan's style that reminds me of the newsreel and TV clips of these popular ex-Canaries, with the emphasis on deft changes of pace and direction, subtlety rather than blistering speed, and the defence-splitting pass or perfect cross that has set up so many goals this season.

With one very obvious exception, few players in City's recent past have been worth the admission price on their own, but here is one I have - on a busman's holiday, of course - happily paid good money to watch.

Hoolahan's influence has been stifled to a degree in the second half of the season as teams have come across him for a second time, and the goals have dried up - just one since Boxing Day, and that squandered penalty at Colchester.

But managers of rival clubs, including Kenny Jackett at Millwall, Lee Clark at Huddersfield and Simon Grayson at Leeds - his former boss at Blackpool - have made reference to Hoolahan's special talent, with Jackett labelling him the most technically gifted player in the division.

Voting for the Canaries' player of the season award is well under way and in this particular election Grant Holt will doubtless be regarded as firm favourite.

As I said on this page last week, Holt's contribution has been immense, not just by becoming the first City player for 46 years to score 30 goals in a season, and I doubt his unfortunate habit of getting suspended - in the case of Saturday's yellow card against MK Dons, rather needlessly - will seriously damage his chances of topping the poll.

One could make a good case for at least six or seven players, with Chris Martin and last night's scorer, Korey Smith, very worthy contenders.

But ask for just one name and, for that little touch of genius with the ball on a string, it

is Hoolahan for me.

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