The setting wasn’t the Stade de France, it wasn’t Paris or even France. It was a quaint, rural bar on the Phi Phi Islands, about 45 kilometres off the south west tip of Thailand.
A small village pub that seemed to be constructed of materials found scrapped or left unused from other projects, materialised a bar in a small slice of paradise from what seemed out of nothing. Mismatched pieces of wood made up the walls and shelving, even the bar itself, while galvanised roofing kept the sun off our backs as well as the occasional rain shower. The bar might not even have existed a week before our arrival and for all we know could have disappeared a week later, but all that mattered on the 13th June 2016 is it was there and it had the game.
In the corner, a DVD of Leonardo di Caprio’s The Beach ran on an endless loop on a small television, hoping to attract passers-by who had been inspired by the movie, shot locally back in 1999, to come visit the islands. On the main screen at the centre of the bar – Ireland versus Sweden. A welcoming publican delighted to seat two tourists front and centre at his premises, to share in the wonder of a match featuring two nations thousands of miles away
On the screen, the game flowed less smoothly than the beer, but it flowed nonetheless. A bright start from Ireland that, for the first time in a hell of a long time, looked like they belonged at an international tournament. No early concession, no trouncing and no overwhelming pressure without the ball. The crowd roared in the stadium. The bar roared too, on occasion, to the bemusement of a couple of local customers.
A half-time interval allowed a moment’s breather, a toilet break – which required a short walk to a neighbouring bar. And then Wes struck.
Starting off the move on the left-hand side with a throw-in, the play eventually recycled across to the opposite side of the field. Sweden fail to deal with the trouble and Seamus Coleman collects, maneuvering magically past the Swedish defence before a carefully dinked ball found an unmarked Wes, who had been loitering at the back post ever since his misplaced cross into the box. Bang. An absolutely exquisitely struck half-volley into the far-right hand side of the goal. The goalkeeper is helpless, the strike is too perfect. The defence are lost and Wes Hoolahan, after all the column inches, all the pre, mid and post-match discussion of his ability or, more often, his absence, finally had a moment that will stand the test of time.
Finally, a moment in an Irish shirt to saviour. To remember forever. Whether you were in Paris that day or Lille or Dublin or Cork or the Phi Phi Islands, memories were forged by the sweet strike of Wes. The cult had finally been given its stamp of approval.
Five years on, Wes Hoolahan has just completed a League 2 promotion-winning season with Cambridge United. He’s 39 and has just signed a new one-year extension to keep him for another year. He can’t play too many games in quick succession but mustered 34 outings this year, along with seven goals and a series of utterly vintage Wes displays that will live long in the memory of every U fan.
The marvel of Wes lives on for another season. More memories will be made. If there are Cambridge fans thinking of a jaunt to Thailand for a post-covid break, I know a place.