The Kieran Shannon Interview: Eoin was never handed anything

Eoin Hand’s was a journeyman’s career in football, but it was still the stuff of his boyhood dreams. Managing his country was beyond those wildest dreams and he was so close to success. But chaos and catastrophe confounded his best-laid plans.

Eoin Hand at his home in North Kerry. Photo: Domnick Walsh Eye Focus

“We had a decent team in those years and there’s been plenty of speculation that the problem was in the dressing room. That the senior players were too strong and the manager was too weak. I’ve never seen it that way. I always thought that Eoin had fair enough control over the players he had there. The lads seemed to like him and get on well with him. The problem basically was that we weren’t good enough.”

— Ronnie Whelan, Walk On: My Autobiography

As catchy as First Hand is for the title of his book, an even better and more apt choice to capture the chaotic and colourful life of Eoin Hand would have been How The F*** Did I Find Myself Here?. 

From South Africa with the Arcadia Shepherds, to South America with what was supposed to be the Irish international team, to Saudi Arabia managing Al-Taawoun FC, Hand has found himself in more jams and scrapes than Walt in Breaking Bad.

In one of his first days in Saudi, he wore a pair of tennis shorts and a t-shirt heading out, not knowing how offensive such attire was to the locals. He’d learn soon enough: while innocently browsing in the local camel market, he was apprehended by a group of policemen, bundled into the back of a truck and taken to the local station where he was left alone in a cell for hours.

Another time, the team were invited to a formal dinner with the local prince who sponsored the team. Hand and his players were informed they could only start eating when the prince started to eat, and had to stop once he stopped. Furthermore, it was forbidden to show the soles of their feet to the prince; quite the challenge, considering they were sitting on the floor.

By the time Hand had negotiated his dodgy knee to assume a suitably comfortable position, the prince had already finished his meal. “He had no interest in being there.” Hand had to drive outside the town looking for somewhere to eat. “Eventually I found a Wimpy,” he says, “and ended the night dining on a fast-food meal of burgers and fries.”

Then there were the players. Like the one who scored a brilliant volleyed goal in the 10th minute of a match and ran over to Hand on the touchline, not to celebrate with him but ask to be taken off – sure how could the game get any better after that?

Other players would urge him to witness the public beheadings in the town square. Hand politely declined, just as he’d give the local mutti – witchcraft – a skip in South Africa whenever some of his players would start a fire in the corner of the dressing room. About the only time he’d go native would be in Kerry when he moved there a few years after being on his deathbed.

So how did he end up in such places? Simple, he tells you. Survival.

“I had to take them [the jobs]. If I wanted to stay in football they were the choices I had at the time. Like, when I finished with Ireland, Saudi was financially the only logical option. I had finished up with Ireland. There was an economic downturn and the sports shop I had opened with Tony Ward had gone bust. So I was there, ‘What do I do now?’ Then I heard Tommy Docherty had turned down this job in Saudi.” Hand couldn’t.

Nothing was ever handed to the Hands. The book opens with a 10-year-old Eoin observing a regular sight – his mother cooking the dinner before heading to work – only he spots that she’s crying. When he asks what’s wrong, she tells him his father is dead. And yet Monica Hand couldn’t even attend the funeral.

Bernard Hand had died in England where he had worked pretty much from the time Eoin could walk just so he could provide for him. With work at 3 o’clock and four boys to look after, how was she supposed to get over to England?

In his early 20s, Hand himself worked at everything from selling cars to trainee accountancy to managing a folk group while playing part-time in the League of Ireland. When a performance with Drumcondra caught the eye of Portsmouth, family members urged him to pass on it and instead take up an apprenticeship as an RTÉ cameraman he’d just landed. It was steady, pensionable. Football wasn’t. But Hand had to go.

“All the time my thinking was ‘I want to be a footballer.’” He would carve out quite the career. A journeyman’s, of course, hardly a star’s, but still the stuff of boyhood dreams. He’d play 20 times for Ireland, score a goal against the USSR in front of 100,000 in Kiev, set up another for Ray Treacy in a famous 2-1 win over France in a World Cup qualifier.

He’d punch Franz Beckenbauer in the chest in one particularly heated international, then rile Rivelino to want to punch him in the face after the brilliant Brazilian found Hand’s man-marking a bit too vigorous. (“Loco!” a livid Rivelino would point at Hand. “Loco!”) At club level, he’d attract the interest of a big hitter like Newcastle United, though he’d only learn that after his career was over; instead, he’d have to settle for almost a decade in the lower divisions with Portsmouth.

But again that was nothing to be sniffed at. Four years ago he was inducted into the club’s hall of fame by Steve Foster, one of the most evocative centre-halves of the 1980s with his famous headband. Before he’d play at the highest level for Brighton, Luton and England, Foster started out at Pompey where Hand took him under his wing, a gesture Foster never forgot.

He’d continue to mentor and create special experiences upon returning to Ireland in the late 70s. Within a year of taking over as player-manager at Limerick, they were league champions and gaping open-mouthed around the Bernabeu.

When they walked in and saw all the cups, they assumed they were in the trophy room but turned out there was another room for that, they were merely in the hallway. They’d strike for two goals against Real back in Lansdowne Road, then a year later play out a 1-1 draw with a Southampton side which featured the likes of Keegan and Shilton.

And, of course, by then, he was manager of Ireland.

Now that in itself provided more than its share of How The F*** Did I Find Myself Here?moments.

If one player encapsulated both the chaos and legacy of Eoin Hand’s time as Ireland manager, then Chris Hughton would be as good as any. Last year, while Hand was visiting his son – a captain with British Airways – in Brighton, he popped his head into the nearby Amex Stadium where he was warmly welcomed and shown around by the manager of the local football club who were heading towards promotion to the Premier League.

Ever since Hand’s first competitive game as Irish manager, a glorious 2-1 home win over Holland, Hughton and Hand struck up a mutual regard and respect which still endures to this day.

But once upon a time it was severely tested. That’s how much of a cock-up the 1982 tour of South America was.

Some of the story you’re familiar with. How Ireland were initially scheduled to play Argentina as well as Chile and Brazil – even though the UK was at war with Argentina over the Falklands. When Hand and his party initially flew out, he had only 14 players on board.

What you may not have known was that when Argentina was eventually dropped from the match itinerary, Hughton was anxious to join the party.

The morning after winning an FA Cup final replay, the Spurs full-back was at Heathrow Airport with his bags, all ready to go, when it came over the tannoy for him to report to the desk to take a phone call.

It was his wife. She’d received a call herself from a woman saying that he wasn’t to travel; he was no longer needed. Next time Hand called Hughton, the player was understandably livid.

“I verified that whole story with Chris before I put it in the book. Someone in the FAI had got some woman to call Chris’s house to not bother coming because it would save the cost of a flight. Imagine – the morning after winning the FA Cup and going out of your way to play for your country only to be told you’re not wanted!

“I was at the airport waiting for Mark Lawrenson as well. [Liverpool manager Bob] Paisley had rang the FAI saying he couldn’t travel but the FAI boys never passed that on to me. I couldn’t believe it. I had a blazing row with [treasurer Charlie] Walsh and [general secretary Peadar] O’Driscoll after that. ‘Ye’re a f****n’ joke, the two of ye’.”

The whole trip was. After being infamously walloped 7-0 by Brazil, the weary and demoralised party limped on to Trinidad and Tobago, a fixture only put together after the Argentina game was cancelled. The record shows Ireland lost to Trinidad and Tobago 2-1 – only they didn’t. Ireland actually won 3-0.

But on the day of their arrival, Hand’s team were obliged to play a local club team. His players were so disoriented, one of them even wore his shorts on backwards. That’s the game they lost, 2-1, before summoning the pride and the strength to win the full international. With no internet back then, not even an Irish press in attendance, some mischievous locals reversed the two results.

“It was unfair but what could I do?” muses Hand. “We’d just been thrashed by Brazil. I wasn’t going to come home and boast about having slain the mighty Trinidad and Tobago.”

In Hand’s opinion, the trip negated all the momentum and positivity his team had gathered from the previous World Cup qualifying campaign.

They’d beaten a Dutch team that had contested the previous World Cup final and a French team that would light up the following World Cup, reaching its semi-final. Only goal difference – or more particularly, a couple of larcenous refereeing decisions in a 1-0 defeat in Brussels – denied them a spot at Espana ’82. South America wiped away all that credit. It scarred Hand, scarred his team.

“Looking back, I should have refused to go on the tour to South America. The Brazil part was a huge attraction for everyone but because of the Argentina dimension and the travel arrangements that went with it, the whole thing was a disaster.”

Hand will be the first to recognise that as unlucky as he was in the job, he was lucky to ever get it in the first place. Had the FAI been an ambitious, professional outfit, they’d have hired a more experienced manager. It was still the honour of a lifetime, getting to manage his country, work with some of the best players this country has produced.

But he won’t lie; ever before his last game, a 4-1 home defeat to Denmark, he was ready to go. It’s why he went with such an experimental line-up against such a formidable opposition, why he allowed Mick McCarthy to race against John O’Shea, a columnist who continuously mocked the centre half’s lack of pace and Hand’s management.

“It was such a stupid thing to do, the week of an international. It was just me saying, ‘Put this f****r in his place forever. He’s been slating me in the paper. Let’s take the [bet] money off him and let’s drink it tonight.’ It was the wrong thing to do.

“I was delighted to be finishing with Ireland. Living in the country was tough. If results were bad and I went out with my missus for a drink, fellas would come over, “F****n’ quit, you and all those England bastards you’re playing!’”

History would come to judge him kinder. Jack Charlton himself would appreciate his contribution. “I rang Eoin up when I got the job,” he told Paul Rowan in The Team That Jack Built, and I got to know from Eoin about what was going on. It’s amazing how what he said was almost 100% right.”

What did Hand pass on in the course of their two-hour chat? Lots of things. Not to get rid of Mick Byrne when Jack was thinking about bringing in his own physios. Take a look at this Ray Houghton lad at Oxford; Davy Langan says he has some Irish roots. Anything to help Ireland, which is why he took the job in the first place.

“Was I jealous of the success the lads had afterwards? Not at all. I was delighted for them. I had great respect for them. They gave me everything they had. Yes, if I had been the first to qualify [for a major tournament]. I might have been a wealthy bugger off the back of that. But you can’t second-guess things like that.”

Eoin Hand in 1984 as the Ireland boss.

For him, the biggest what-if of his life is his father. While he reckons that loss might explain why he was so willing as a veteran to help a young fella like Steve Foster, in hindsight he could have done with a mentor himself when it came to life in general.

He probably married too young. Just 23, taking a girl from Dublin to England where football just drove them apart; in trying to provide for a family, he was away too often from family.

Then in South Africa in the mid-1990s his relationship with the mother of one of his children ended. It devastated him. “I came back to Ireland and tried to drink Ireland dry. Everything was dark. There was no light I could see.”

In 1997 he was diagnosed with acute pancreatitis, a condition that kills four in five sufferers. Before his operation, he was administered the last rites. He even made his own funeral arrangements, down to what folk music to play. He was ready to die. But then he didn’t. And after that, he was ready to live.

It helped having someone to live for. Pauline started out as just a friend, a rock that would constantly visit him in hospital along with his mum, but in time, the relationship would develop into something even more.

They’re married now, together in Moyvane, just outside Listowel. As a kid Moyvane was something of a refuge to Hand; one of his mother’s lodgers, a Josie Kirby, hailed from there and as a way to repay Mrs Hand’s hospitality, would take young Eoin down there for the summer.

When he was 12 he had a fight with his brother and instinctively fled to Moyvane to avoid his retribution. Half a century later, it’s where his path led again.

“People – Dubliners – say to me, ‘How do you live in the asshole of the country?’ What they don’t know is here in Kerry, I can go to the Listowel Writers Week or some folk session. I can go over to Killarney. I can call up to my friends in Limerick. And then I can go home to serenity. In the mornings I wake up and I hear cows mooing and birds singing.”

Blessed that in all the places in the world he finds himself there.

First Hand: My Life and Irish football, by Eoin Hand with Jared Browne, is published by Collins Press


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