Eoin Hand's reasons to be cheerful: 'I’m a crossword fanatic as well, I drive myself mad doing them'

Eoin Hand is on the line from ‘Fuinseog’, the house in North Kerry he has shared with his wife Pauline since 2002.
Eoin Hand's reasons to be cheerful: 'I’m a crossword fanatic as well, I drive myself mad doing them'

Eoin Hand is on the line from ‘Fuinseog’, the house in North Kerry he has shared with his wife Pauline since 2002.

It’s situated in Glenalappa, a townland just outside Moyvane, an area well known to Eoin from childhood summers the Dubliner spent there with friends of his family.

With a stream running close to the edge of their garden, a sheltering windbreak of the ash trees which give the house its name and an enticing mountain view, it sounds like an idyllic place in which the former Ireland player and manager — who turned 74 at the end of March — is able to cocoon.

“Absolutely, it really is,” he confirms. “We’re lucky. It’s the serenity and the beauty of it. We have a load of bird feeders and we’re entertained by the birds every day. Particularly these days. There seem to be more of them around now than ever before. Or maybe it’s just that we’re more conscious of them now.

“They really are our only company. We can do nice walks here where we don’t meet anyone. My nearest neighbour is a farmer, a lovely man, about two hundred yards away. And, of course, we observe all the social distancing rules.

“We have a big garden too, so there’s always something to do. And you can take your time now to do things properly. So we’re well able to occupy ourselves every day. I’m a crossword fanatic as well, I drive myself mad doing them. And then, at night, we’ll sit down about 10 o’clock and watch Netflix or something I’ve recorded.”

There’s also the facial hair initiative to be going on with.

“Yeah, I’ve grown a beard again,” he chuckles. “And, yes, it’s silver. Any beard I had before was black.”

Eoin Hand was once described by his great friend Billy Keane, of John B’s fame in nearby Listowel, as “a wonderful singer” but “a slow and tenuous” banjo-player. Now lockdown is giving him the ideal opportunity to improve the latter, many, many years after a traumatic episode stopped him in his tracks as a promising young player.

As a 12-year-old, he was about to take the stage at a concert in Dublin when “some bollocks” de-tuned his instrument. He still winces at the memory of what ensued.

“I was introduced, started to play ‘Mary’s Boy Child’ and the sound of the thing was awful. I was humiliated. It was the worst thing that ever happened to me. And I told my mother I was never playing that thing again, even though I was actually pretty good at it then. But I gave it up and I’m still trying to get back to it again. So every evening now, I pick the banjo up for a half an hour or three-quarters of an hour. I’m getting better but not good enough yet.”

It’s always reassuring to find Eoin sounding hale and hearty not least because, at this vulnerable time for so many, he is someone who has already experienced his own close brush with death, when heavy drinking resulted in the acute pancreatitis which saw him hospitalised and given the last rites in 1997.

Now, looking after himself includes carefully curtailing his intake of alcohol.

“The way I like to say it is that I drink under medical supervision, because I keep getting my health checks,” he says. “So I can have a relaxing couple of glasses of wine now. And I’m fine, I’m grand. That was 23 years ago, I was 51 at the time — so the way I look at it is that that’s 23 years of a bonus for me. I’m very lucky.”

Sadly, our otherwise upbeat conversation took place under the shadow of the death from cancer this week of Michael Robinson at just 61 years of age. Ask Eoin to sum up the man who played under him for Ireland in the 80s and he offers a fond and glowing tribute.

“In my mind, he stands out in the football world as one of the nicest type of guys you could ever meet. He was quiet, humorous and intelligent, an educated guy. I never saw him upset, never heard him swearing. He was a joy to have around the squad.

“On the pitch, as a forward, he brought us strength in a different way. Mickey Walsh was a fox in the box type player and Frank Stapleton was good in the air and great at holding it up. Michael, operated from centre to right, and gave you those powerful runs. You could nearly say he was like a winger — he would always like the ball in front of him — but he had that big frame that meant he could play upfront as well. So he had that versatility and he gave us that variation. On and off the pitch, I’ve nothing but fond memories of him.”

In general terms, Eoin is hopeful that Irish football, for all that its many problems are currently being exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic, is on the cusp of bigger and brighter things. Having himself been ostracised under the previous FAI regime, he believes that there are “good people” in place in Abbotstown now and says he would be happy to contribute in whatever way he can to helping them work through the tough challenges ahead.

He is especially enthused about the appointment of Stephen Kenny to the post he himself once held.

“I think it’s absolutely fabulous,” he says. “I’ve been championing Stephen for a long time and I do think this is the start of a new era. Stephen is the first manager who will have a system where there’s a total pathway through at international level and a style of play being developed which Stephen will nurture.

“We’ve always known what Brazil and Italy and Spain and Germany are like. But we don’t have an identity because our player development was set back by the old FAI. Now, there is that opportunity and I think Stephen should be given plenty of leeway — it shouldn’t just be about results — to build on this, so that when players come into international football, they’re playing ‘the Irish style’. We’ve never had that but I think things will be different now.”

In the meantime, football isn’t the only passion of Eoin’’s which has fallen foul of the pandemic. June 2 was due to have been a red-letter date for him, for some of his stellar friends and colleagues in the worlds of sport, entertainment and broadcasting, and for his adopted home of Moyvane.

“I had organised a big parish fundraiser for that date called ‘Legends Of Sport And Music’ which was going to be held in the community centre,” he explains. “I already had confirmed Finbar Furey, The Dublin City Ramblers, Gerry O’Connor and Mickey McConnell, who wrote ‘Only Our Rivers Run Free’.

From soccer I had Niall Quinn, from rugby Tony Ward, from hurling Nicky English and from football The Bomber Liston and Ogie Moran. And George Hamilton was going to be the MC. I had them all, everyone was willing, and June 2nd was in their diaries…”

His voice trails off with a sigh, as thinks of what might have been.

And, hopefully, will be again, come the day of liberation.

“That’s right,” says Eoin Hand, his good cheer restored. “And when that night happens, we’ll definitely know that we’re back to normal.”

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