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'The first person who introduced me to WhatsApp was the footballer Benoit Assou-Ekotto'

Eoin Butler on the joys of watching and discussing sport through different mediums.

Former Tottenham footballer Benoit Assou-Ekotto (file pic).
Former Tottenham footballer Benoit Assou-Ekotto (file pic).
Image: PA Archive/PA Images

Updated at 17.14

A RURAL COUNTY councillor once diagnosed for me the reasons he sees for the decline of the Irish local pub. “Young, non-farming, rural Irish families no longer live in towns above the shop,” he explained. “They live in purpose-built, one-off housing located well out in the countryside.

“They have fewer children. Their lifestyles are healthier. Drink-driving laws are more strictly enforced and obeyed. When married Irish couples today want to unwind, they’re far more likely to opt for a glass of wine in their own spacious living room, in front of a tablet or flat screen television.”

Without wishing to pile on, I recently thought of one more non-fatal blow that’s been struck against the local pub: WhatsApp. A few years ago, I’d have watched last Sunday’s All-Ireland hurling final in my local. Ideally, I’d have gone there with my friends to share their company and hear their most venal, absurd and profane private thoughts on the action as it unfolded.

Failing that, I’d have gone there to hear the most venal, absurd and profane private thoughts of random strangers.

But now we’re in our late thirties. Most all of my friends are settled down and have children. (“Why could the blind man not see his friends?” one of my mates WhatsApped our group yesterday. “Because he was married.”) We don’t see each other that often but, thanks to WhatsApp, that doesn’t prevent us sharing a little of these occasions together.

The first person who introduced me to WhatsApp (and this isn’t a name-drop, I swear) was the footballer Benoit Assou-Ekotto. It was the summer of 2013 and we were in the Cameroonian jungle on a charity press trip. He complained to me that his then-Spurs team-mate Gareth Bale (BOOM, there’s your name-drop!) would never engage in WhatsApp banter with the rest of the team.

Assou-Ekotto was a strange fish. I spent a few days with him and there are plenty of colourful anecdotes I could tell you about that time. None of them in this column, sadly. But I sure as hell could share them on WhatsApp. And that’s kind of the app’s appeal.

So it’s Galway versus Limerick in the All-Ireland final. As it happens, I’m not from a hurling background. But virtually all of my old college friends are. So our WhatsApp group provided an interesting running commentary on the game. “Limerick are well on top but need to put the hurt on,” commented one, let’s call him Stephen, in our group chat early in the first half. “Everyone is just shooting.”

“Shooting poorly,” replied another, let’s call him Conor. “That’s the problem with the lighter ball and spending too much time in the gym.” “T-shirt arms,” replies Stephen. “It’s a plague on modern hurling,” agrees Conor.

Conor played club hurling at a very high level, but never played inter-county. The running joke amongst our friends is that Conor claims to have once destroyed virtually every well-known hurling star in the country in some club game or other that none of us were around to witness or verify.

Tom Morrissey and Paul Killeen Limerick's Tom Morrissey and Paul Killeen of Galway. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Much like the way Arsene Wenger claims to have “almost” signed every football superstar from Messi to Mbappe, at a certain point, it’s genuinely difficult to tell if Conor is in on the joke and just trolling us, or if he actually believes what he’s saying.

“So who out there today did you once roast in a club game?” I ask. For once, Conor doesn’t take the bait. “My era is over, Eoin,” he replies. “Conor was usually the roastee,” quips Stephen. This is, potentially, a key moment in the conversation. If the next reply is some ill-judged crack, the entire conversation will devolve from there.

Thankfully, the on-field action is dramatic enough to keep us on the straight and narrow.

One of the lads posts a screenshot of a man in the crowd who looks a bit like Alan Shearer. Another assumes the man in the photo actually is Alan Shearer. “20,000 Limerick fans can’t get a ticket,” he fumes. “And they give one to Alan fucking Shearer. Bad enough Shane Ross getting a ticket.” Another friend agrees. “I guarantee you 10 minutes before throw-in Shane Ross had never even heard hurling existed.”

shearer lookalike

Someone intervenes to clarify that the photo isn’t actually Alan Shearer. Just some bloke who looks a bit like him. “I think I know the guy,” replies Conor. He pauses a beat, then adds: “Roasted him in a club game once.” “He’s still wincing at the memory of it,” I laugh.

As Limerick gallop into a seemingly unassailable eight-point lead in the second half, my reaction as is a little self-involved. “If Limerick win the media will use it as just another stick to beat Mayo with.” “Possibly,” says Conor. “I guarantee it,” I tell him.

The absence of one of our friends from the conversation is remarked upon. David (not his real name) is notorious amongst our friends as the most shameless GAA bandwagon jumper in the business. Whether it’s the Clare hurlers, Mayo footballers, Armagh, Wexford, Monaghan… whoever is the Cinderella story du jour, David is always on hand, kitted out in their colours, to bask in the reflected glory.

As it happens, David’s father was a bank manager. And their family did move around a lot when David was a kid. So there may occasionally be some kernel of truth to David’s claims of having a connection to these counties. But that doesn’t prevent us taking the piss out of him relentlessly all the same.

All things considered, it’s amazing David hasn’t turned up to claim some allegiance to Limerick. “His mother is from Adare,” says Stephen. “That’s far more ground that he usually needs.” But all we hear from David is radio silence.

The tide begins to turn in Galway’s favour. “Jesus, if Limerick shit the bed now, it’ll surpass even 1994,” I say, referencing Limerick’s famous collapse against Offaly in that year’s final. “94 was pure Dooley class,” snarls Stephen, who is of course a native of the Faithful County.

As Galway claw their way back to within striking distance of Limerick, the replies become terser.

“”This is bonkers.”

“This is insane.”

“A bed-shitting for the ages.”

“Jesus, Marty will you shut the fuck up about Dolores O’Riordan.”

Finally, the referee blows his whistle and Limerick are All-Ireland champions by the narrowest of margins.

“What a game.”

“Unbelievable.”

Then a Kerry friend decides to stick his oar in.

“Mayo really need to get the finger out now,” he says.

A few minutes later, David finally gets in touch. He’s sitting in an airport with his wife and they’re both wearing green and white headbands.

“Just landed in Porto,” he says. “Streamed the last 12 minutes on my phone. COME ON THE TREATY COUNTY!”

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Eoin Butler

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