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'Heroes are our nurses and doctors in hospitals - we should be proud of them'

Eoin Hand turned 74 today and the former Ireland manager’s view on life has been shaped by the trauma of a near-death experience 23 years ago.

Eoin Hand is making the most of this second chance in life.
Eoin Hand is making the most of this second chance in life.
Image: Donall Farmer/INPHO

WE’LL START WITH the phone calls. They never came after a win. The Netherlands in 1980, France in ’81, the USSR in ’84. Everyone wanted to be his friend then.

But when results went south, the dring-dring-dring of the cream-coloured phone at the back of his Firhouse-based sports shop had a haunting sound. Eoin Hand knew what was coming.

People threatened to kneecap me for ‘picking these English bastards’,” Hand, the former manager of Ireland, says.

“That disgusted me because the men they were claiming weren’t Irish, Tony Grealish and Seamus McDonagh, were as committed as anyone. Michael Robinson? He was a great guy. Chris Hughton? A diamond of a man.

“There was a lunatic fringe around Irish football then. At games, when I was managing St Pat’s, I’d get spat at. If I was out for a drink with the missus, some yob would come up and say, ‘Hand, you are a useless bollix’.

“It was awful stuff and was directly related to the last result. Like, whenever we beat the USSR or France, you were a hero. Then, you’d lose away to Norway, and it was hell.

“What disgusted me was the fact players got stick. They were getting £50 or something like that to play for their country and here they were being abused. They didn’t deserve it.”

soccer-world-cup-qualifier-group-two-ireland-v-holland Hand was abused for selecting English-born players like Chris Hughton. Source: EMPICS Sport

Nor did he merit death threats on another job, this time in South Africa with AmaZulu FC. “It was like apartheid in reverse,” he said of his term in charge of the Durban club in 1994. “These men came to the training ground one day and told me that if I didn’t resign that they would kill me. I asked the police if I should take the matter seriously. They told me these men were not to be messed around with.

To this day it annoys me, because I’m not a political man, I am a football man. I never discriminated against anyone. Racism is an appalling thing.”

So is pancreatitis. Hand was 51 when he was rushed to the Mater Hospital with the illness, placed in ICU, administered the last rites. “Thought I was a goner,” he says.

Not this fella. Twenty-three years on, he has made the most of this second chance life has given him, to the degree that he can contextualise this awful period Ireland and the world is going through with the wisdom of someone with 74 candles on his birthday cake.

“Look, it’s a frightening time for so many,” he said earlier this afternoon. “Homeless people, how traumatic must this be for them? People losing their jobs, the financial worry that comes with that, your heart goes out to them.

“People getting ill with this thing; it’s horrendous. You feel for them, for their families. A friend of mine passed away the other day and we couldn’t go to the funeral. You wanted to pay your respects. It’s desperately sad the family didn’t have people there to commiserate with them.

“But we’ve been told to self-isolate and that’s what we’re doing. We’re following advice, doing what we are supposed to do. If I still get this bloody thing (Covid-19) then so be it. I won’t complain. I’ve been blessed with the life I’ve had. All I can do now is follow the guidelines and be grateful for what I’ve got.”

He has his memories, the 20 caps he won as a player, the five years he spent as Ireland manager, the debuts he handed out to Paul McGrath, Ronnie Whelan, Mick McCarthy and Tony Cascarino.

Except when he watched RTE’s nostalgic two-part programme about the Jack Charlton years recently, he listened to Cascarino suggest it was Charlton who asked him to declare for Ireland and wondered how the facts got in the way of a good story. “I capped him when he was still at Gillingham,” Hand says of Cascarino.

eoin-hand-and-terry-conroy-14111984 Hand during his reign as Ireland manager Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

“The stick I got for that at the time. The Ice Cream Man was the headline in one of the papers. It kind of pissed me off what he (Cascarino) said on the documentary but what can you do? You can’t change it. Mick, now Mick is different class. First thing this morning, the phone buzzed, Mick wishing me a happy birthday. A great fella.”

If the world was a different place, he’d have been on the phone to McCarthy himself this month, wishing him well for the play-off in Slovakia, sitting down in his favourite armchair to watch the game.

Yet there isn’t any sport to watch on TV. The pubs and the golf courses around his Kerry home are also closed. Instead this 74-year-old son of Dublin is filling his days by painting his house, weeding his garden, thinking back to how he ended up here.

His home is in north Kerry, next to the house he used to holiday in as a child. Hidden away down a quiet boreen, where grass grows down the middle of the road, he sits in the sunroom looking down the valley below and thinks back to a time when he was 12-years-old and he and his big brother got embroiled in a row, which ended with Eoin kicking his elder sibling in the shin.

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Anticipating the hiding he would inevitably receive when his brother got back up, the only place Hand felt he would be safe was here, next door to his home now, in Moyvane. So he ran all the way from Drumcondra out to Inchicore, from where he thumbed a lift down to Kerry, making it down to Listowel late that evening. From there, he walked for another 12 miles, in the dark, to his holiday home. “And scared the living daylights out of everyone in the house when I knocked on the door,” he said.

The next morning, his mother was called. “Eoin’s safe,” she was told.

So, in a way, it’s no surprise that after the harrowing events of the 1990s, when his marriage and business collapsed, he’d seek this little place out once again as a refuge. He has been here since ’97, when he recovered from his life-threatening illness. Now he sees the world threatened with a new disease.

“This is a trying time for so, so many people,” Hand says, teasing your correspondent for bringing the subject up.

“Most people who have called today have said ‘happy birthday’,” he says, laughing. “So thank you for reminding me that, as a 74-year-old male, I’m in what they call the vulnerable category. Look, at my age, you have to be able to laugh at yourself.

“You also have to just get on with things. You know that out of something as awful as this, there will be some good.

“There may well be an economic disaster and the accompanying stress will be awful for people. I’m not going to downplay that. But if people use this time to re-evaluate what’s important, see the value of their health, of spending time with their family, there are positives in that.

“Put it this way, I’ve spent my life in sport where the word hero was bandied around, sometimes fairly, sometimes loosely.

“But nurses, doctors, medical people, they’re all heroes. People looking after the elderly and the sick in care homes, as a nation we should be saying thanks to them. They’re risking their health for us. That’s beyond heroic. We should all be so proud of them.”

About the author:

Garry Doyle

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