A helping hand

EVEN all these years later, with Ireland just one game away from qualifying for a major tournament, Eoin Hand sometimes thinks about just how close he was to qualifying for Spain 82, only for that “cheat” of a Portuguese referee in Brussels.

Ireland may never have played better in a qualifying campaign but how many people even know that, because Stapleton’s goal was disallowed?

“I feel this terrible frustration,” he says in that likeable, effusive, candid way of his, “because the likes of (Liam) Brady, (Frank) Stapleton and (David) O’Leary deserved to play at a World Cup, in their prime. That’s what I feel bad about and sometimes wish if only, if only, if only.”

That’s one part of him. The other?

“The other side of me says ‘Jesus, if we’d qualified, would you be dead now? Would you have drank so much that you’d be six feet under now?’ My whole life would probably be different.”

He loves the life he has now. Living down in Kerry, living with his soulmate and new wife Pauline, all the while still working with the FAI as a player support service manager and for RTÉ radio as Gabriel Egan’s co-commentator; he’s at peace with himself and the world now, looking well for 65 and feeling even better. When Bono belts out Beautiful Day, he’s singing Eoin Hand’s life story.

Although 14 years ago the traffic was stuck, he wasn’t moving anywhere. He “nearly snuffed it”. He had been drinking heavily and was diagnosed with acute pancreatitis , a condition that four in five sufferers die from.

When he was operated upon, he was asked if the mother of his South Africa-based child should fly over. Hand asked them should she travel. They said, yes, she should. He was administered the last rites. He told Pauline, his confidante at the time, not his partner, that he wanted plenty of Irish music and ballads at the service, not “any sanctimonious bullshit”.

“I was actually planning my own bloody funeral. And I was doing it in a matter-of-fact sort of way. I just said, ‘Right, I’m gone. What can I do about it? Nothing, except arrange my funeral’. Then he waited to die. And then he didn’t die. And after that, he couldn’t wait to start truly living.

He had lived a colourful life up to then alright. Football had dominated it but for the most part that was fine by him. He first signed for Swindon before returning home to play in the League of Ireland only to go back over to Portsmouth at 21 where he’d play for 12 years, mostly in the old Second Division.

“I went over on £45 a week and when I finished up I was still only on £120, so there was no pension there, but I didn’t mind. I’ve never been driven by money, to the point sometimes I might have undersold myself, but I’ve always felt privileged to be earning something out of something I love.”

He especially loved playing for Ireland. He was capped 20 times and to this day treasures the goal he scored in Chile and another goal in Kiev against the old USSR. In 1975 he was part of an Irish team that hammered Turkey 4-0 but it would be his last game for his country after a falling out with his club manager, Ian St John. To get away from Saint meant heading to South Africa. The apartheid regime was at its height and Hand got to see up close how inhumane and inflexible it could be. He captained the Arcadia Shepherds who had among their ranks a Vincent Julius, the league’s Jackie Robinson.

“We were having our end-of-season dinner dance and the club chairman came over to me and said that when the meal was over, Vincent would have to leave the premises. And I said, ‘What? He might win the Player of the Year! He’s one of us!’ He said ‘It’s the law.’ So I said ‘To hell with the law’ and we all left for a restaurant that a German pal of mine ran to party, with Vincent there.”

Not long after, Saint got the sack at Pompey and Hand was back, giving a help on the coaching side, when he got the offer to become player-manager at Limerick FC. He took it and within a year they had won the league and he had been appointed manager of his national team. At 34, he was the youngest manager in European international football.

That first year was a “dreamland”. But during that qualifying campaign came that GUBU-like night in Brussels and then shortly after it, the notorious tour of South America. Things were never quite the same after that, though never quite as bad as they’d be portrayed in the Charlton Years either.

“The players liked him, they wanted to play for him,” Mark Lawrenson would later say, while Mick McCarthy would observe: “Eoin used to run a happy ship.” Frank Stapleton would contend though “Eoin wasn’t forceful enough. I think he kind of felt a little bit overawed.”

Hand would refute the latter contention but accepts Stapleton’s point that he could have been more forceful.

“I remember in my last game — the infamous 4-1 defeat to Denmark — we tried this different system but Kevin Moran was being bullied all over the place by (Preben) Elkjaer. And at half time I gave Kevin a bollocking. ‘You’re like a girl out there, you, the big strong man!’ And Kevin accepted that. And I realised then that I should have been doing that a lot more. I’d never shout at players.

“I suppose that was the weakness, that I respected the main players that bit too much. But I wouldn’t give any credence to the myth out there — and it is out there — that Brady and Stapleton ran the show. They had a say, they did not run the show. As a player myself, I always felt it was better when your strategy was a collective thing. In a team meeting I’d say ‘I’ve seen the opposition play, this is the way we’re going about it, what do you think?’, leaving it open to the senior players to have their input. Then I’d take it on board and might say, ‘Good point.’ I didn’t care who came up with the great idea as long as we were all singing off the same hymn sheet.”

Maybe he was ahead of his time. Nowadays they’d call it the player-centred approach. Back then, it was interpreted as the sign of a weak, hapless manager. At the time, the criticism hurt. His sons had their bicycle wheels slashed. But they’re well over it now. These days Gary is a captain with British Airways, his brother Warren is a marketing executive with Nike, while his father takes pride that there’s always a sincere warmth in any dealings he has with his players from that era. It was he who established the team’s base at the Airport Hotel, right across from the AUL training grounds, rather than being based in the Green Isle and then commute all the way over to some northside venue to train.

Charlton also appreciated 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. Don’t get rid off 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.

After Ireland he was basically out of a job and out of money. He’d ran a sports shop to complement his part-time income from the FAI but with the economic downturn, Hand found himself in the courts for non-payment of the rent. To stay out of jail meant taking a gig in Saudi Arabia.

That was some experience. His centre half and his winger were having an affair. One of the strikers would be exhausted on game day, probably because he’d go into the desert the night before to masturbate all night. And yet the team had good time for him, pleading with their infidel coach to bow to Sharia law so he could be saved. But he didn’t and after his contract was up, he left for Huddersfield Town.

He would have four respectable seasons as the gaffer there, though never quite winning promotion to Division 2, and the demands and insecurity of the profession would eventually take a toll on his marriage.

“I loved finally working full-time with full-time players but at times you’d be going, ‘When does this finish?’ Every night you were either watching a reserve game or scouting some game. Football places a hell of a lot of stress on family life. You’re away so much and always there’s the insecurity of — what happens next? I married a Dublin girl when we were 23, she came over to Portsmouth with me, but sadly over the years we grew apart.”

With no work and effectively no marriage, he returned to South Africa. He’d walk into the dressing room and there’d be something burning in the corner. “Leave us. Mutti. Witchcraft.” And Hand would just step out and nod, ‘Hope it’s good’. Because if his players felt it wasn’t stronger than their opponents’, it didn’t matter what he’d tell them, the game was already decided.

Then there were the supporters. They were all black. He was white. There was no apartheid now but plenty of reverse racism. One day tens of them approached him on the training ground with a message. “Leave. If you don’t, we will kill you.” Hand explained he was contracted to the club but one of them stepped out and said, “You’re not listening. If you do not go we will kill you tomorrow”. Hand looked around. His players were all gone. The next day, so was he.

He still stayed in South Africa. He’d met Geraldine and they’d a daughter, Shannon, and he tried to make it work, running a sports bar, but then he was assaulted in a setup, and when he came out of hospital, he found all his money in the bar was gone.

He returned to Ireland but there was no work. His mood darkened. He had this pain in his stomach and to kill it he’d drink — a lot — but while it would then go away, it would return the next day. The vicious circle went on, until he was on death’s door.

He stopped drinking. He stopped smoking. His constant friend Pauline helped him write up a proposal to the FAI to offer career guidance to all these young kids attracting the attention of English clubs. The FAI saw its merit and all these years on, he’s still carrying out that work.

He’s still with Pauline too. When he awoke from his fog he spotted she was the one there.

“Jesus, the penny dropped with me — where will I find anyone nicer than this woman?

“And that’s how it worked. We were friends first and the rest came after, which is probably the way it should work really, though maybe not take quite that long!”

They live together in Kerry now. Dublin was too expensive and hectic. As a kid his mother ran a lodgings in Dublin while his father worked and died in England. One of her lodgers was a Josie Kirby from Moyvane, and to repay Mrs Hand’s hospitality, Josie would take young Eoin down there for the summer. In his mind’s eye every childhood summer in Kerry was sunny, tranquil, joyous. So after the 2002 World Cup he went down to Josie’s relatives and asked if he could buy a plot of their land. Now he has a house there, overlooking the Dingle peninsula while a stream runs by.

“I just love the serenity of where we live,” he says. “It’s just priceless.” So are the locals. As a Dub he loves how much they want to win and how well they take it when they lose. He treasures their wholesomeness and their sheer zest for life. He golfs in Ballybunion (“On a fine day it’s paradise”), sings and plays music with the locals, even cutting an album for charity a few years ago with Mick McConnell. Earlier in the year he played a Dublin drug dealer in a local play, looking just like Ciaran Hinds in Veronica Guerin.

“In this scene they set me up dealing drugs to this other guy and then bust me and start beating the shit out of me. And I have this piece of sponge to soften the blow but sure doesn’t your man miss the sponge! Next thing they’re knee-capping me, and I have this tomato ketchup thing here, and I’m spurting it out while rolling around going ‘Ahhhh!’”

And he laughs. How many former international football managers get to play a drug dealer and splurt tomato ketchup all over a pair of white trousers bought specially in Dunnes Stores in Tralee? As a kid he used love playing the banjo. When he was 12, there was a big school concert across from the Gresham on O’Connell Street. He was up as a solo act, all ready to sign Long Time Ago in Bethlehem. Next thing, the curtain was unfolded and this awful sound ensued. Some bastard had detuned the banjo. Forget Eamon Dunphy’s various diatribes; he would never feel more humiliated in his life.

“That had a huge impact on me,” he says. “I remember wanting to kill the bastard who did it. But I never found him. And I never played the banjo again either.” Until Kerry.

He was in Estonia last night, commentating on the radio. The job with the FAI still stimulates him too, advising parents, scrutinising contracts, keeping abreast of all Fifa and UEFA regulations. It’s unglamorous but it’s making a difference.

Back when he started, there were kids being signed up on week-by-week contracts until he challenged a major club over it. Since then, all 16-year-olds signed up are assured of a two-year deal.

“I still get a great buzz out of finishing up talking to parents after a two-hour meeting in some hotel, knowing they feel a hell of a lot better about their kid’s options. I think it helps that I’ve been there. I’ve been the kid that was let go by Swindon, the one that came back to the League of Ireland, the one that got a second bite of the cherry, the one with alcohol problems, I’ve been the one that as a manager had to tell a kid that he wasn’t being kept on. I’ve been down all those roads.”

And survived. Now he thrives. It took almost dying for him to learn to live.

“The bottom line is you drive your own thing. I mean, [the breakup of] my first marriage, I have to take much of the blame for that. I nearly killed myself from drinking. I can’t blame anyone else for that. But then I got this second chance. And the huge big difference is that there’s no such thing now as a problem, it’s a challenge. Now every day is a beautiful day.”

Sing it.

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